definition and discussion of red light cameras

Red Light Cameras

Introduction/Problem Statement:

Motor vehicle crashes have been identified as the leading cause of untimely deaths among American people within 1 and 34 years bracket. The United States Department of Transportation has estimated that there is an excess of 230 billon dollars in form of societal costs of road accidents in America annually. Factors which have been regarded as the major contributors to this phenomena include speed, alcohol, kinds of vehicles, the kinds and states of the roads traveled plus a myriad of other driver behaviors (Scully, 2001, pp. 38). These are a number of reasons why the introduction of red light cameras has met much anticipation in America and several other countries world wide.

 For quite some time now, there has been much controversy and dilemma related to the issue of the red light cameras. This is in terms of the relative advantages or disadvantages it has concerning the safety of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians as they all interact in the highways at different capacities. A good number of the pro-red light cameras believe that this technology has gone a long way in reducing the number of road accidents from where they were before their installations. On the other hand, those opposing them argue that road carnage has since increased.

With all sorts of evidences provided by each party in support of their views, the debate seems not a short lived one. This paper is therefore intended to give an insight into various underlying facts concerning this contentious issue, as they have been portrayed through a number of researches, including some theories regarding the pros and cons of the red light cameras. Towards the end of the paper, I intend to make some personalized comments hoping that this will make some contribution to making our roads safer to be in.

Definition of terms

Red Light Cameras- these are automated camera systems which are positioned at road intersections and which are meant to photographically capture (either digitally or by film) any incidences of motorists who run red lights. They monitor traffic signal continuously and are triggered every time a motorist enters an intersection in a speed that is above the preset minimum, following a specified time interval after the signal turns red. Red light cameras are connected to sensors and the traffic signal in order to monitor all traffic flow at the stop lines or cross walks.

Usually, any violations that occur within the two tenths of a second after the change of the signal to red are not recorded due to the technical limitations of the available recording equipments. On the same note, a grace period of up to a half of a second is generally allowed to motorists by most of the red light camera programs. Series of photographs and sometimes with video clips shows the process of violation, before entering (on a red signal) the intersection. Furthermore, they show the various progression stages of the vehicle through the intersection. Elapsed time since red signal begins, time of the day, vehicle speed, license plate and the date are recorded by the cameras (Dettmer, 2007, pp. 49).

Red light running-this is a traffic law violation that occurs when motorists enter a road intersection after such a time when the signal light turns red. A motorist who finds him/herself inadvertently in an intersection at the time the signal changes to red, for example waiting to turn left, is not a red light runner and as such cannot be taken as a red light violator (Dettmer, 2007, pp. 50).


The apparent argument concerning the use of red light cameras is to automatically photograph vehicles that disobey stop lights in an effort to enforce traffic laws. The current speed cameras and photo enforced red light cameras are expected to be between five thousand and six thousand in the United States alone, and are operated by nine different companies. As the United States strives to match Australia, Europe, and Asia, the number of locations are expected to grow by 10-20% per annum. Regulation of fines related to red light violation is under the docket of the State and the City level implementers and they range between fifty dollars in North Carolina and three hundred and ninety dollars in California. The typical arrangement is to issue violation tickets to offenders (usually through the mail) based on reviewed photographic evidence (Barr, 2001, 52).

There are a substantial number of individuals and groups that oppose the red light regulation of motorists’ conduct while driving through intersections. These institutions are of the opinion that the devices are a threat to citizenry privacy and at the same time they pose many legal questions regarding not only their effectiveness but also the certainty with which they should provide evidence against violators (Stoff, 2007, 31). One such issue is the case where a vehicle may have been stolen, violated red light regulation and then returned back without the knowledge of the owner. The question here is that if the owner is issued with a ticket, then how will the authorities authenticate the charges against this individual? On the same note, for the time being, these devices are not able to definably identify the driver, and this is where the owner liability dilemma mostly lies. In California for example, it has been proposed that pictures be taken from the front so that a clearer driver’s picture and license plate number are photographed to avoid such conflicting issues.

Similarly, there have been multiple studies that indicate an increase in accidents deemed to have happened as a result of these devices’ use. A South Florida College of Public Heath University study for example states that red light cameras have actually increased the severity and number of crashes. According to this study, brakes slamming, for fear of being captured by the red light cameras while going through a yellow light has been indicated as the major cause of red light related accidents (Berlau, 2001, 63). Furthermore, there are other studies that claim that increased rear-end collisions at intersections has largely offset the reduction of side-angle crashes. However, it is worth to note that rear-end collisions are milder than side-end collisions. The most appropriate logic behind this conclusion is that a vehicle’s front and rear are better protected than its sides.

Red light running is quite a big problem in many countries in the world. It has grave and pitiful effects in the sense that over half of the deaths that occur from it involve occupants of other vehicles and pedestrians who are hit by red light runners. In the United States, about 900 people died in 2007 from red light involved accidents. In the same year, it is estimated that one hundred and fifty three thousand people were injured in different magnitude. Other statistics show that over 45% red light running crashes injuries occurred between 1990 and 91 as compared with 30% of other types of crashes in four urban areas public roads (Berlau, 2001, 65).

Further research also indicates that younger individuals, who are usually less likely to use safety belts, with poorer driving records and driving relatively older and smaller vehicles are the most dominant red light runners. At the same time, these persons are more than 3 times likely to be involved in multiple speeding convictions (even having an opportunity to stop at red light signal) than those who had an opportunity to run a red light but did not actually do it (Netter, 2005, 23).

As much as people would rather have conventional policemen enforcing traffic laws on our highways, it is imperatively more efficient to have red light cameras doing the job because of the many difficulties posed to the policemen. One of these includes policemen running after offender vehicles to stop them. One implication of this conventional method is that it is a threat that endangers motorists, the police officers themselves, and pedestrians as well, not forgetting the fact that policemen cannot be at every intersection all the time. Community resources are not sufficient to provide for police patrol at all intersections as frequently as would be necessary to ticket all red light runners as red light cameras would do. This is one of the major arguments for red light cameras enforcement of the law while the police engage themselves on other enforcement issues.

Other safety benefits associated with red light cameras enforcement constitute substantially reduced red light violations. In Oxnard, Virginia, and Fairfax, California, Institutional studies showed that there was a 40% reduction in red light running violations. In addition, driver behavior has been indicated as positively changing in almost all communities that adopt red light cameras law enforcement (Stoff, 2007, 26).

Critics of red light enforcement reports that although there is reduction in front-into-side crashes and overall intersection injuries, there are consequential increases of rear-end collisions. However, there is a general concession that the economic aggregate benefits of red light regulation are far much beyond the rear-end crashes costs. This is based on research facts and the truth in the sense that right-angled collisions are more severe in nature than rear-end crashes.

Further criticism is that it is better to lengthen the yellow light timing as a more effective measure in reducing intersection crashes. The argument here is that this would give motorists more time to brake and also to make the most rational conclusions as they approach intersections. Other opinions attribute most of the crashes that occur at intersection to transportation engineers’ negligence (Raymond, 2002, 46). There is a belief that engineering technology is more advanced in matters related to road construction safety than the current condition. The fact that technology has made it possible for red light cameras to photograph only those vehicles which enters an intersection immediately the light turns red is a proof of such advanced engineering technologies.

A major concern of red light cameras critics is that it violates the privacy of motorists. This has however, been countered by pro-red light cameras with the argument that driving is and will continue being a public roads regulated activity. It is fundamental that when an individual obtains a license, she/he agrees to abide by such rules as obeying traffic signals. Neither common sense nor the law makes any suggestions that drivers are exempt of observation while on the road or that their violations should not be documented. Depending on the law, red light cameras can be designed in a way such that they can only photograph the rear license plate without photographing the occupant.

Law enforcement must authorize mailing of violation charges to offenders. It is legislation that enhances the vehicle owner’s responsibility to the ticket, with an establishment of the proposition that the vehicle driver at the time the offence was committed is the registered owner of the vehicle, in disregard of who was actually driving at such time of the offence commission (Blitz, 2005,17). This is accomplished by local legislation in some states or by the state statutes.

Another objection associated with red light cameras is that they do not substantially prevent most of the intersection accidents from taking place. The other accusation is that red light cameras are just but a local governments’ tool for making money from unsuspecting motorists. This view has been cited in many anti-red light cameras campaigns, including the opposition against the Missouri red light enforcement Law. Moreover, it is believed that it is an activity that discourages traffic lights synchronization (the elimination of unwanted traffic lights as well as other traffic lights deactivation during low traffic periods). Traffic lights synchronization decreases fuel consumption, pollution, and congestions when they are properly done (Raymond, 2002, 47).

Similarly, red light cameras are seen as a form of discrimination because they only snap photos of motor vehicles, without monitoring the automotive behavior of other road users such as motorcyclists and bicycle riders. The contempt point here is that considering the staggering costs required to install these devices, it is meaningless to maintain them not only because they increase other forms of accidents as mentioned earlier, but also because they leave some offenders out in the process of law enforcement.

Proper engineering, installation, and operation of intersection controls will lead to reduced red light violations. Opponents of this technique postulate that government resources should be redirected to more productive uses like intersections improvement rather than on the ticket cameras (Blitz, 2005, 19). On the same note, is thought that some simple signal and intersection improvement will have more long lasting positive impact, with little, if no negative consequences.


In order for red light cameras to be implemented effectively, a number of recommendations should be addressed. Proper partnership of all stakeholders should be prioritized, with jurisdictions being in a position to identify all involved actors. As I mentioned earlier, it is of no use to install these extremely expensive gadgets only to realize later that some actors have been left outside the realm of road use responsibility. Additionally, there is need for much concerted efforts in research to show how best the population can be educated about the road safety and use of red light cameras. Such endeavor should also address the issue of motorist privacy as it is an area that has provoked much concern about the rights of persons.

Work cited:

Barr Bob. Symposium. Insight on the News, Vol. 17, 2001, pp. 52

Berlau John. ALEC Hopes to Put a Stop to Red-light Cameras. Insight on the News, Vol. 17, 2001, pp. 63

Blitz Jonathan. The Dangers of Fighting Terrorism with Technocommunitarianism: Constitutional Protections of Free Expression, Exploration, and Unmonitored Activity in Urban Spaces. Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 32, 2005, pp. 17, 19

Dettmer Jamie. Correspondence. Insight on the News, Vol. 17, 2007, pp. 49, 50

Margaret Raymond. Penumbra Crimes. American Criminal Law Review, Vol. 39, 2002, pp. 46, 47

Netter Brian. Avoiding the Shameful Backlash: Social Repercussions for the Increased Use of Alternative Sanctions. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 96, 2005, pp. 23

Scully Sean. Red-light Cameras’ Legality Disputed. The Washington Times, 2001, pp, 38

Stoff Rick. Red-Light Cameras Not about the Money: Raking It in Nothingness. St. Louis Journalism Review, Vol. 37, 2007, pp. 26

Stoff Rick. Under: Are the News Media Explaining the Red-Light Cameras Coming to Your Neighborhood? Are the Cameras Just Money Makers, Like Speed Traps? St. Louis Journalism Review, Vol. 37, 2007, pp

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