Red light cameras are about as popular as gum disease, but their supporters believe that the devices promote safety. Recent research calls that belief into question, though the data was collected in Texas where driving conditions are somewhat different. The issue is important as NYC's authority to use speed and red light cameras in school zones lapsed on July 25.
The study identified a phenomenon that turned the potential safety gains of the cameras into a loss. Drivers quickly became aware of which intersections were equipped with red light cameras. When drivers saw the light go yellow at one of these intersections, they were more likely to brake harder to avoid a ticket. That hard braking led to an increase in accidents and injuries involving rear-end collisions. These types of accidents are arguably less likely to lead to a fatality, but they were still more than enough to offset the reduction of accidents involving people racing through the intersection after the light went red.
What Is Safe And What Is Legal?
Interestingly, the takeaway might be that legal driving is not always the safest driving. If the driver behind you is tailgating, you know that hard braking is likely to lead to a collision. At a yellow light, you are left with the choice to break the law or risk an accident. Red light cameras change the calculus enough to encourage some drivers to take their chances with a possible crash, rather than with a guaranteed ticket.
The research was clear on the fact that fewer drivers ran red lights at intersections equipped with cameras. The cameras are clearly effective at reducing light runners and collecting revenue. They are not so clearly effective at avoiding car accidents and preventing injuries.