Orange County Branch Newsletter

June 2011

Secretary's Column

Did You See the Flash Go Off? - Red Light Cameras

You’re cruising along, running a little late to work in the morning or driving in an unfamiliar area minding your own business, perhaps lost in your thoughts as you reflect on the events of the day.  All of sudden, you accelerate through an intersection as the light turns RED and you  realize that there’s a red light camera installed on the other side of the intersection.  Was that a flash? You begin to perspire, feeling unsure of what just happened.  Next, you find yourself debating whether the camera flash actually went off or not.

So far I have not been an actual “victim” of the red light camera, but it has been a close call on more than one occasion.  For those of you who have been caught, such as my dear husband, you may have first been in denial when you opened that unassuming envelope in the mail. Upon opening it, you find that there is somebody’s photo on the letter that looks somewhat familiar…oh wait, that’s you!! And the reality starts to set in.  My husband asked me if he thought he could pass this photo off as his brother who “borrowed the car that day”.  I chuckled, pointing out that whoever reviews these and receives appeals probably has received all kinds of responses and excuses and would never buy it.  My husband went on to state his case and explained that the signal was difficult to see as he was rounding the curve along Moulton Parkway in Laguna Woods. He tried to convince me that the installation was a set-up, ready to catch any unlucky driver through the area.  I must admit, seeing the time and date of violation on the letter looked a bit intimidating, almost as if the letter was specifically designed to imply “I got you”!

Needless to say, my husband reluctantly paid the price by attending traffic school and forking over the hefty fine of $361 for his moving violation ticket.  Weeks later when I was in the same area, I noted the location of the subject camera. I noticed it was installed at a very, shall we say, strategic (for the camera operators) location at the intersection where the horizontal sight distance along the street was a factor in helping them catch violating drivers. Not only was this a curved section of roadway but there was also a significant vertical grade difference within the curved section. Add to that an overgrown tree or two acting as visual obstructions and you’ve got an unlucky situation if you are behind the wheel and running a few minutes late.  

Arriving home from traffic school on a beautiful Saturday, my husband was not happy about having to spend the entire day indoors listening to an instructor lecture him  on how to be a safe driver.  He was eager to tell me that there were many others in class that day that had also gotten caught by photo enforcement at various locations within the county.

I’ve always wondered about the effectiveness of these cameras, so I did a little research to find out what has been written on the subject or if any data had been collected studying whether red light cameras have decreased the number of accidents in intersections.    

The National Motorists Association (NMA) is a major opponent of the use of photographic devices to issue tickets stating that they do not make roads safer. Studies by the companies that sell the photo enforcement equipment or the municipalities that use their equipment or services claim otherwise; however, there have not been many, if any, independent studies conducted that verify that photo enforcement devices improve highway safety, reduce overall accidents, or improve traffic flow.     

Where cameras were shown to decrease certain types of accidents (such as right-angle), other types of accidents increased (such as rear-ending). The media in several cities (Los Angeles, Portland, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia), have conducted their own studies and found there was a significant increase in rear-end crashes at intersections following the installation of the red-light cameras. Some cities have found that depending on the intersection where the cameras were installed, there have been increases, decreases, as well as no real changes to the overall amount of accidents as a result of having these cameras. Groups opposed to using these cameras cite the lack of research to date as reason enough to suspend their use.

In addition, these groups also point out that, although notifications are sent first class mail to the owners of the vehicles involved in the violation, there are no guarantees that the accused will receive the notice.  The driver is not identified and the owner then has the burden of proving his/her innocence and having to identify who the driver was if they were not involved.  Not taking this burden into account, the government assumes that the ticket was received by the right party and may issue a warrant for arrest if the ticket goes unpaid.   

Another point that should be made is that for these violations, there is no “accuser” for the motorist to confront which is a constitutional right.  In rare instances where a law enforcement officer is overseeing a camera, it is unlikely that the officer could recall the actual incident. Also, although the equipment may have been working properly when it was set up, there is always the argument that there is the possibility that it was malfunctioning at any particular moment.      

So are there better alternatives to the cameras? NMA and other organizations say yes. . It is argued that better engineered, installed, and operated intersection controls would greatly reduce the number of red-light violations.  . One of the more effective changes made across the country, including California, has been to increase the yellow-light time.  Researchers at the Texas Transportation Institute found that even a slightly longer yellow light has resulted in a positive safety impact.  Those who disagree with this study argue that motorists who are regulars through these intersections will grow accustomed to the longer lights, although research shows this is not the case.   

Another measure that has been used to make intersections safer is the implementation of an all-red clearance interval, which is a brief period where the lights in all directions are red.  This all-red interval allows drivers, who cannot safely stop, to pass through the intersection before the light turns red. Sometimes, even safe and attentive drivers can misjudge the time it takes to completely get through an intersection.  The City of Detroit, the Automobile Club (AAA of Michigan) and others have found the all-red clearance interval to be quite effective.

Generally, making traffic lights more visible at intersections can and has decreased intersection accidents and red-light violations.  Some of these changes may include repainting lane markings, especially turn lane markings; improving signage by clearly indicating that a signal is ahead and which lanes are for turns only; providing advance warning lights to notify motorists of pending light changes at high speed intersections; and building new turn lanes especially where there is a significant amount of increased volume of new motorists to the area.

Intersection and signal improvements can have long-term positive effects. Retiming of traffic signals can reduce congestion, consumption of gas, and driver frustration as well as reduce red-light violations.  It is important that cities take a good look at the effect of red-light cameras so that they can determine whether safety is actually being improved. I think we can all agree that this topic is one worth discussing since multiple arguments can be made for or against red light cameras, but we also need to ensure that our , cities are  choosing  good traffic engineering and not just  generating revenue with ticket cameras