Red-light cameras are a common frustration for drivers in hundreds of U.S. cities. But as some of these cities have folded to complaints about the technology's use, a new study has found that disabling red-light cameras leads to an increase in automotive crash and fatality rates.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety looked at 14 cities that ended their red-light camera programs between 2010 and 2014. Researchers compared the annual crash rates in those cities with those of 29 others in the same regions that continued using red-light cameras.
The numbers tell a sobering story. In those cities that turned off their cameras, the rate of fatal crashes involving a driver who sped through a red light was 30 percent higher per capita than if the cameras had remained functional, according to the research. The overall fatal crash rate at signalized intersections in those cities was likewise 16 percent higher per capita.
From the time they went into operation through 2014, red-light cameras across all 79 large U.S. cities included in the study saved nearly 1,300 lives, IIHS concluded.
"This study confirms that cameras reduce fatal crashes and for the first time quantifies the effect that ending these programs has on safety," IIHS President Adrian Lund said.
The findings of the IIHS study could reignite the debate over just how valuable these programs can be.
When red-light technology was first introduced in the early '90s, many cities added cameras at their busiest and most dangerous intersections. But drivers complained about being ticketed and said the cameras gave them anxiety. That anxiety, they argued, caused them to speed up to get through the intersection, or slam on the brakes to avoid getting a ticket.
Those complaints eventually prompted some cities to end their programs. By 2015, the number of cities with red-light cameras had dropped to 467, after hitting a high of 553 just three years earlier.
The IIHS said red-light-running crashes caused 709 deaths and 126,000 injuries in 2014. That represents 2 percent of the 32,675 people killed in traffic accidents in 2014, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Most of those killed by red-light-running vehicles are not the drivers, but passengers, pedestrians and bicyclists, the IIHS said.
"Debates over automated enforcement often center on the hassle of getting a ticket and paying a fine," Lund said. "It's important to remember that there are hundreds of people walking around who wouldn't be here if not for red-light cameras."