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Back to Archives | Back to July 2011 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

Are Red Light Cameras an Effective Crash-Reduction Solution?

By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP

icture a young family leaving a large suburban shopping mall in a late model SUV after an afternoon of shopping for summer clothes for an upcoming vacation and enjoying pizza and ice cream. As their SUV enters the roadway from the mall on a green traffic signal and begins to make a left turn, it is broadsided by a pickup truck that fails to stop for a red traffic signal. The family members’ lives are shattered forever. Even though all were using appropriate occupant restraints at the time of the crash, the 29-year-old father is pronounced dead on the scene; the 6-year-old son sustains serious internal injuries; and his 4-year-old sister and his mother suffer no physical injuries. The 26-year-old driver of the truck is uninjured.

Sadly, this scenario was repeated, on average, more than twice a day in the United States in 2008 when 762 lives were lost in crashes resulting from red light violations.1 Sixty-four percent of those killed in 2009 were in vehicles other than the one that ran the red light.2

When traffic control signals operate as intended, they facilitate the systematic movement of the greatest amount of traffic in the least amount of time with the greatest amount of safety and with the least amount of congestion. However, when drivers fail to heed signals’ directions, crashes often occur, and, sometimes, our relatives, neighbors, friends, and coworkers are seriously injured or killed. In 2005 and 2006, about 21 percent of all traffic fatalities in the United States occurred at intersections, and approximately 30 percent of those intersections were signalized.3

Law enforcement officers initiate effective enforcement actions—ideally on the days and at the times and locations that these violations historically have transpired—to increase red light compliance and thereby reduce the needless deaths and injuries they produce. Realistically, however, officers are unable to undertake traffic enforcement as often as they wish because of competing demands and ever-growing workloads at a time when their agencies’ authorized strengths and budgets are dwindling. Even when officers are able to enforce against red light violations, their efforts often add to existing congestion and lead to frustration when these officers cannot safely apprehend violators or even stop their vehicles on shoulders that are sufficiently wide.

Automated red light photo enforcement cameras (red light cameras) “can prevent the most serious crashes”4 and can augment—not supplant—officers’ enforcement efforts. These programs have grown exponentially in the United States, from 1 in 19925 to 535 in April 2011;6 have been supported by the IACP since 1998;7 and should serve only one purpose: to enforce 24/7 against red light violations in an effort to reduce the crashes they trigger, as well as the deaths and injuries they cause.

Following are several items that support the effectiveness of red light cameras:8

  • A 2011 study compared fatal intersection crash rates before (1992–1996) and after (2004–2008) 14 U.S. cities with populations of 200,000 or more had implemented red light cameras and then compared those results to 48 similarly sized cities without cameras during both periods. It found that the average annual rate of fatal red light–running crashes had declined for both study groups, but the decline had been greater for cities with red light cameras than for cities without them (35 percent versus 14 percent); and that the average annual rate of all fatal crashes at signalized intersections had decreased by 14 percent for cities with red light cameras and had increased slightly (2 percent) for cities without them. The study concluded that red light cameras had reduced the citywide rate of fatal red light–running crashes and, to a lesser but still significant extent, the rate of all fatal crashes at signalized intersections.9
  • Howard County, Maryland, began testing red light cameras in 1994; has utilized them for enforcement since 1997; has regularly evaluated its program; and has found “substantial overall crash reductions at almost every approach that had a red light camera,” with the majority of the approaches experiencing reductions in excess of 10 percent.10 Overall, Howard County realized a 31 percent reduction in all crashes, a 42 percent decrease in angle crashes, and a 30 percent decline in rear-end crashes.11 Moreover, a 2002 socioeconomic cost of collision study conducted by the Maryland State Highway Administration at Howard County and other Maryland red light camera sites identified statistically significant reductions in overall crashes and in left-turn crashes, which resulted in an average cost savings of $196,000 per intersection studied.12
  • When the Virginia legislature allowed the statute under which red light cameras had been authorized to lapse in 2005, the relative risk of red light running in the months immediately following their discontinuation was 2.63 times higher at four Virginia Beach intersections, and it increased at those same intersections to 3.59 times higher one year after the law’s demise.13
  • A study conducted between July 1, 2007, and June 30, 2008, by the Texas A&M University System’s Texas Transportation Institute of 56 intersections with red light cameras in 10 Texas cities showed an average 30 percent decrease in overall crashes, as well as an average 43 percent reduction in right-angle crashes.14
  • The Transportation Research Board’s 2003 synthesis suggested that “automated enforcement of red light running can be an effective safety countermeasure.”15 To that end,

There is a preponderance of evidence, albeit not conclusive, indicating that red light–running camera systems improve the overall safety of intersections where they are used. . . . There is also evidence, also not conclusive, that there is a “spillover” effect to other signalized intersections within a jurisdiction.16
     Although nearly every study and crash analysis performed . . . has had some experimental design or analysis flaw or deficiency, there is considerable “evidence” that [red light] cameras do have an overall positive effect.17


While evidence supports the effectiveness of red light cameras, jurisdictions considering their use should think about several issues to ensure program success.

  • Red light cameras should be implemented only to benefit public safety and once an engineering study supporting their installation at the intersection or intersections under consideration has been completed. Unfortunately, too many jurisdictions have obtained red light cameras to generate revenue by placing them at intersections through which many drivers run red lights but that lack histories of serious collisions amenable to reduction via red light cameras. Some exacerbate this situation by reducing the length of the yellow change interval at the same time as the cameras became operational, obviously creating additional violations and more revenue to offset budget shortfalls or to fund other items. One small municipality even attempted to fund from red light camera fines a police officer retirement system. However, this municipality failed to realize that the jurisdiction’s limited number of red light cameras working 24/7 would achieve only its goal of significantly reducing violations and would not produce a meaningful revenue stream over time.
  • Jurisdictions considering the installation of red light cameras need to investigate first what is causing the crashes they wish to reduce. Not all collisions at red light–controlled intersections can be cured by red light cameras. A poorly designed intersection or a signal obscured by sunlight at certain times will not become safer with red light cameras. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, mixed and matched its solution by increasing the yellow change interval by about one second, reducing red light violations by 36 percent18 and, by installing several months later red light cameras, decreasing red light violations further by 96 percent.19 Other jurisdictions have achieved success simply by increasing the yellow change interval, which the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recommends be a minimum duration of three seconds and a maximum duration of six seconds.20
  • A conscientious review of the photographs taken by red light cameras should be undertaken before any action against an alleged violator is initiated. This process ensures that anything other than bona fide violations are eliminated early on; should be conducted by experienced law enforcement officers, who could be retirees or officers assigned to limited duties; and prevents the embarrassment of citing a violator whose vehicle did not commit a clear-cut violation, was in a funeral procession, or whose registration plate was obscured. Only about 35 percent of photographs in Sacramento, California, result in the issuance of citations.21
  • One of the reasons for installing traffic control signals is to reduce the frequency and the severity of certain types of crashes, especially right-angle collisions.22 Of the approximately 21 percent of traffic fatalities in the United States occurring at intersections in both 2005 and 2006, about 46 percent of them were T-bone collisions and only 5 percent were rear-end crashes.23 Broadside crashes have declined in many jurisdictions where red light cameras have been adopted. For example, Oxnard, California, realized a 32 percent decrease in T-bone crashes and a 68 percent reduction in right-angle collisions involving injuries.24 Although some studies have indicated that the installation of red light cameras has increased the number of rear-end crashes, others have not.25 In any event, rear-end crashes tend to be less serious in terms of injury and cost than right-angle crashes.26 Perhaps rear-end crashes will decline once motorists become acclimated to vehicles’ stopping at yellow lights rather than continuing through intersections—the latter of which many did prior to the installation of cameras. In the aforementioned Texas study of 56 intersections, rear-end collisions increased 5 percent (by 5 crashes) during the 12-month study; however, in terms of those occurring at intersections where there had been more than 10 crashes per year, the number of rear-end crashes actually decreased.27 In the Oxnard study, rear-end crashes increased a statistically insignificant 3 percent.28 In Howard County, they dropped a total of 30 percent at all but one involved site.29
  • Red light cameras are a relatively new enforcement technology, and their adoption may require amending existing laws or ordinances so a jurisdiction’s program is not derailed when reality conflicts with prevailing statutes. Consulting with competent legal counsel; contacting nearby jurisdictions to ascertain what legislative obstacles they have encountered; and reviewing such publications as the FHWA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Red Light Camera Systems Operational Guidelines,30 the IACP’s Highway Safety Desk Book,31 and the IACP’s Manual of Police Traffic Services Policies and Procedures32 during the program’s planning phase will allow jurisdictions to identify and avoid the pitfalls others endured.

Final Thoughts

Red light camera programs should be evaluated periodically to recognize whether or not their intended purpose still is being achieved. The importance of discovering intersections where crashes are not declining is as significant as identifying those where they are, so the former can be analyzed further to ensure the appropriate crash-reducer is implemented. The results of these evaluations may yield information upon which to focus future efforts. For example, the study of 46,997 red light violations at 11 intersections in Sacramento, California, between May 1999 and June 200333 suggested that as the age of the violator increased, the probability of running a red light while speeding decreased;34 that most violations occurred during the daytime, with the highest frequency being between 2:00 p.m. and 2:59 p.m.;35 that about 56 percent of the violating vehicles were not speeding at the time of violation;36 that more than 94 percent of red light violations occurred within two seconds after the onset of the red light;37 and that about 4 percent of the violators were repeat offenders.38 Releasing to the public findings such as these contributes to the transparency of the program.

Perhaps if red light camera citations were accompanied by points against violators’ driver’s licenses rather than by fines akin to parking citations, the cameras would reduce even more the frequency of crashes and the needless injuries and deaths they cause. Granted, the number of citations issued would decrease in response to the threat of points, and more citations would be challenged before the judiciary because the consequences of sustained violations would be greater. However, the controversy relative to revenue generation might finally be divorced from the public safety purpose on which the adoption of red light cameras should be based. The current tendency is to regard a violation linked to a vehicle’s owner rather than to its driver as a mere inconvenience, and this perception would be eliminated.

The success of red light cameras can be linked to the program’s transparency. If the public safety purpose of red light cameras, as well as the operation of the program, is discussed extensively in various forums throughout the jurisdiction prior to implementation; if appropriate signage is provided to apprise drivers of the use of red light cameras; if reports of malfunctioning cameras are investigated promptly and, when verified, incorrect citations are rescinded; and, if a straightforward means of contesting what drivers believe are improperly issued citations is provided and publicized, many negative issues can be avoided and public support for the effort can be garnered. A jurisdiction that operates by itself as much of the red light camera program as it is able generally will gain greater public acceptance of it. For example, while Texas allows a jurisdiction to contract for certain aspects of a red light camera program, it prohibits a jurisdiction from “agree[ing] to pay the contractor a specified percentage of, or dollar amount from, each civil penalty collected.”39 The manner in which contractors have been compensated has been in many jurisdictions as contentious an issue as the creation of cash cows.

While red light cameras are not a panacea, their judicious use can achieve what law enforcement officers cannot:
24/7 enforcement against red light violations and a resulting decline in lives needlessly lost and in serious injuries sustained. ■


1“Red Light Running,” Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Safety, (accessed April 18, 2011).
2Wen Hu, Anne T. McCartt, and Eric R. Teoh, Effects of Red Light Camera Enforcement on Fatal Crashes in Large US Cities (Arlington, Va.: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, February 2011), 2, (accessed April 18, 2011).
3“2005 vs. 2006 Intersection Fatality Comparison,” FWHA Safety, (accessed April 18, 2011).
4Hu, McCartt, and Teoh, Effects of Red Light Camera Enforcement on Fatal Crashes in Large US Cities, 10.
5National Cooperative Highway Research Program, NCHRP Synthesis 310: Impact of Red Light Camera Enforcement on Crash Experience (Washington, D.C.: Transportation Research Board, 2003), 3, (accessed April 18, 2011).
6“Communities Using Red Light and/or Speed Cameras,” Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute, (accessed April 18, 2011).
7Highway Safety Committee, “Red Light Camera Systems Operational Guidelines,” IACP Resolution adopted at the 112th Annual Conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (Miami, Florida, 2005), (accessed April 18, 2011); and Highway Safety Committee, “Support for Automated Enforcement Technologies,” IACP Resolution adopted at the 109th Annual Conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2002), (accessed April 18, 2011).
8National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running, “Get the Facts about Photo Enforcement,” table Red Light Camera Results in Specific U.S. Cities, (accessed April 18, 2011).
9Hu, McCartt, and Teoh, Effects of Red Light Camera Enforcement on Fatal Crashes in Large US Cities, 1.
10Glenn Hansen, “Utilization and Impacts of Automated Traffic Enforcement,” statement before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, June 30, 2010, 4, (accessed April 28, 2011).
11National Cooperative Highway Research Program, NCHRP Synthesis 310, 24.
12Hansen, “Utilization and Impacts of Automated Traffic Enforcement,” 4.
13Bryan E. Porter, Kristie L. Hebert Martinez, and Johnnie F. Bland, Survive the Drive Coalition research, abstract, Old Dominion University, January 16, 2007, (accessed April 18, 2011).
14Troy D. Walden, Analysis on the Effectiveness of Photographic Traffic Signal Enforcement Systems in Texas (Crash Analysis Program of the Center for Transportation Safety, Texas Transportation Institute, Texas A&M University System, November 2008), 21, (accessed April 18, 2011).
15National Cooperative Highway Research Program, NCHRP Synthesis 310, 2.
17Ibid, 38–39.
18Richard A. Retting, Susan A. Ferguson, and Charles M. Farmer, Reducing Red Light Running through Longer Yellow Signal Timing and Red Light Camera Enforcement: Results of a Field Investigation (Arlington,Va.: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, January 2007), 1, (accessed March 10, 2011).
20FHWA, “Highway Traffic Signals,” chap. 4 in Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways, 2009 ed., 489, (accessed April 18, 2011).
21C.Y. David Yang and Wassim G. Najm, Analysis of Red Light Violation Data Collected from Intersections Equipped with Red Light Photo Enforcement Cameras, March 2006, DOT HS 810 580, 11, (accessed April 18, 2011).
22FHWA, “Highway Traffic Signals,” 434.
23“2005 vs. 2006 Intersection Fatality Comparison,” FWHA Safety.
24Hu, McCartt, and Teoh, Effects of Red Light Camera Enforcement on Fatal Crashes in Large US Cities, 2.
25Ibid, 3.
27Walden, Analysis on the Effectiveness of Photographic Traffic Signal Enforcement Systems in Texas, 31.
28National Cooperative Highway Research Program, NCHRP Synthesis 310, 11.
29Ibid, 24.
30FHWA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Red Light Camera Systems Operational Guidelines, January 2005, FHWA-SA-05-002, 14, 37–52, (accessed April 18, 2011).
31IACP Highway Safety Committee, “Use of Automated Enforcement,” in Highway Safety Desk Book (Alexandria, Va.: September 2004), 112–21, (accessed April 18, 2011).
32IACP Highway Safety Committee, “1.28 Photo Enforcement,” in Manual of Police Traffic Services Policies and Procedures (Alexandria, Va.: July 2004), 80–81, (accessed April 18, 2011).
33Yang and Najm, Analysis of Red Light Violation Data Collected from Intersections Equipped with Red Light Photo Enforcement Cameras, 11.
34Ibid, 39.
3636Ibid, 19.
37Ibid, 35.
38Ibid, 25.
39Photographic Traffic Signal Enforcement System, Texas Transportation Code § 707.003(b), (accessed April 18, 2011).

Please cite as:

Richard J. Ashton, “Are Red Light Cameras an Effective Crash-Reduction Solution?,” Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 78 (July 2011): 84–86.

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From The Police Chief, vol. 78, no. 7, July 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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