In Defense of Red Light Cameras

Last week the Los Angeles Police Commission, the citizen panel that oversees the LAPD, unanimously voted to reject the LAPD’s recommendation to extend the city’s contract with an Arizona based group that provides, maintains, and utilizes “red light cameras” at 32 Los Angeles intersections.  The move came as a shock to the LAPD, but has been widely praised, including two editorials in the city’s two largest newspapers.

The City Council can override the Police Commission with a two-thirds vote.  And while it is unlikely they will do so, it’s too bad that the program is going down without a whimper.

Red light cameras have always been a political hot potato.  Privacy advocates have long argued against the government’s right to place cameras at intersections.  Others have argued that those ticketed by the cameras don’t have the right to face their accuser as guaranteed by the Constitution.  But most people just don’t like getting ticketed when they break the law and are caught doing it.  There’s even an Orwellianly named group of “local activists” called “Safer Streets L.A.” that lobbied against the cameras by arguing that cars making right turns on red lights without stopping isn’t really that big of a deal.  Nearly two-thirds of tickets given by red light cameras are for cars making illegal right hand turns.

As we n0ted three years ago, cars making right hand turns without yielding is a major traffic safety concern.

When the Federal Highway Administration discusses the conflict between pedestrians and automobiles it ranks “right on red” as the top concern.  A look at crash fatality statistics nationwide shows that in Los Angeles, almost one quarter of all crash fatalities are pedestrians.

And as the L.A. Times noted in their editorial burying the camera program, the red light cameras are working.

The LAPD cites a 62% drop in red-light-related collisions at the intersections with cameras, compared with a 22% drop citywide during the same period. Yet local activists have questioned whether the improvements are due to the cameras; at the same time the devices were installed, engineers added “all-red” intervals, during which the lights in all directions are red.

While the “all-red” intervals doubtless help the situation, some of those “all-red” times are a total of .1 seconds.  A 62% drop in collisions (not “accidents,” good job Times!) is an amazing statistic and if the cameras and intervals are working that magic together with the all-red signals; I would want to see more cameras, not less.

The Daily News didn’t even bother to mention the number of crashes that have been reduced, hiding behind the dishonest claim that, “Of course, safety is the No. 1 concern. But while the LAPD and the camera’s peddlers quote data showing the cameras help, opponents cite less conclusive evidence. And many skeptics believe the cameras even cause rear-end collisions by prompting drivers to stop abruptly.”  It’s a neat trick to equate statistics with criticism that people make up without doing research, but it tells you more about the Daily News Editorial Board than it does red-light cameras.

However, joining the anti-traffic enforcement organization in opposing the cameras is Councilman Dennis Zine who referred to the program in the Times as “dishonest” and “really mocks the public.”  I wonder if the Councilman would feel the same about a program that caught gang members that saw a 62% reduction in gang related crime.

Another common argument against red-light cameras is that they are a scam to impoverish people by ticketing them hundreds of dollars for minor infractions.  Locally, the red light camera program actually loses money, the program spends somewhere between a half million and 1.5 million a year to reduce traffic crashes by nearly one-quarter at intersections around the city.

A third argument is that red-light cameras ticket scofflaws instead of people that are truly dangerous.  This argument ignores basic criminology that posits that those who commit small crimes are most likely to be the ones to commit car crimes.  When it comes to scofflaw drivers, the argument is that those same drivers are most likely to commit major crimes.  In other words, if you are willing to take a right on red without stopping, you’re probably also likely to drive at unsafe speeds or ignore a bike lane.

There’s clearly some problems with the city’s red light program.  Some intersections were chosen for political purposes, i.e. every Council District gets at least one, and the collection program is in desperate need of repairs.  But the fury aimed at the program has more to do with drivers not liking to get tickets than it does complaints with the particulars of L.A.’s program.

  • Effelarr

    I agree: this is less about legitimate safety concerns or constitutional concerns, it’s about people not wanting to be held accountable for their actions. Traffic laws seem to be one of the places where otherwise law-abiding people feel like breaking the law isn’t that big of a deal. Since near misses rarely register with drivers (if they notice at all), dangerous drivers are unlikely to correct their behavior in the absence of a) hitting someone or b) getting an expensive ticket.

    I understand that this program is losing money–something that needs to be addressed–but the solution seems like it should be better enforcement and coordination between the courts and DMV to ensure fines are paid, not abolishing the program.

    If the City removes the red light cameras and a pedestrian is subsequently hit by someone making an illegal right-on-red, won’t the City now be liable?

  • Abc

    learn how to spell potato first before you defend this crap..this city is full of idiots…like the poster below who probably works for the company that make the cameras…

  • Anonymous

    If the best you can come up with are insults, then maybe you should re-evaluate your position.

  • Erik

    The red-light cameras issue would not be up for discussion if the program made money for the city.

    Although I like your article, I would like to see if .5-1.5 million dollars could be spent on another program that is less controversial and gets similar gains in traffic safety. If such an alternative doesn’t exist, so be it. My biggest issue w/ the traffic camera program is that it looks like a system where money goes from honest violators into the pockets of camera system operators and not city coffers. The only redeeming aspect of the system is that it does actually cut down on collisions.

  • Dennis Hindman

    The bright flashing lights of red light camera installations on several intersections along the Orange Line have worked very well in letting drivers know that they screwed up in some way. Taking those out will undoubtedly increase collisions between buses and cars. Perhaps they could keep the bright flashing lights or install their own.

  • Sam

    I agree with your post, and believe there should be more red light cameras.  I also think the cameras can help improve efficiency of intersection operations.  Think about how many cars (and buses) you see making left-turns after a light turns red.  One car waiting in the intersection for a gap in traffic is acceptable; and I typically see two to three cars making left-turns after the opposing direction has already turns green.  This degrades intersection operations by taking away time for the opposing direction.  The problem compounds throughout the day.

    You are spot on that too many people make minor infractions.  “It’s just this one time I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign,” or, “I was in a hurry so I sped up to go through the intersection just as the light turned red.”  We need people to drive better in all aspects, to make our streets safer for all users.

  • You have to be joking. Red light cameras are one of the biggest gov’t supported scams out there. They do absolutely nothing for safety and are merely there to extract money from your bank account.

  • When I first moved to L.A. (1/2 a decade ago), I got hit with one of the red light cameras. I wasn’t being blatantly reckless, rather just timed a yellow light wrongly. Was the ticket steep? Most definitely. Was I annoyed? Absolutely.

    But, without a doubt, I’m now _overly_ cautious at lights. . . and that’s a good thing. We should be. 

    The cameras aren’t always on, they only trigger when someone has broken a traffic law and the picture they take is no more intrusive than that of a sidewalk photographer if they happen to catch you in their shot. They’re far less intrusive than any store or building’s security camera (particularly outward facing ones) since they only record the guilty.

    People just don’t like getting tickets. But when it comes to traffic safety, if you feel like you must moderate your driving behavior when in an area with cameras…you’re behavior is likely not legal.

  • Peeeeceeee

    Good riddance to this intrusive boondoggle.

    Incidentally how many is “some”? If “some” of the intersections with all-red intervals only have those intervals for .1 second, and you suggest that there are enough of them to weaken the argument that the intervals reduce crashes, why not strengthen your own argument by telling us approximately how many? Or do you not know either?

  • Katie Matchett

    Let’s not forget that the City’s cost analysis only considers cost to the City. There are, of course, external costs associated with running red lights–namely the cost in disability-adjusted life years when people are hurt or killed by red-light runners. Without better data it’s hard to say how much these external costs add to the “savings” from the program, but when external costs are factored in I would venture that the cost-benefit story would be significantly different.

    Katie M.

  • I love those red light cameras.

    The opposition says that they cause more rear end accidents because people are nervous around the red light cameras. To me, that says more about our driving habits than anything else.

    Slow down to at least the speed limit (remember speed limits) and pay attention and these cameras will never bother you.

    And even if you do get caught, there seems to be a 50 percent chance you’ll get a ticket, so these drivers are big crybabies.

  • Video of red light runners:

    Notice the red light runner at 1:05. The interesting part is not that it happened. The most interesting part is how common it appears to be. The pedestrian’s body language suggests that it’s just another day out and about with the usual vans running red lights. 

    Even if no accident occurs, I call 911 and report reckless drivers who blow through red lights as egregiously as this. All I can do is pass along their license plate number (high definition dashboard video reviewed in nearby parking lot) and give a description of the vehicle. My fantasy is that the intersection’s video is pulled and the driver gets his license taken away, but I doubt anything ever happens.

  • Breaking traffic laws is common. In fact, people justify it by saying it’s practical. They don’t believe they should have to make a full stop at a four-way stop. And they are correct when they point out that 99% of the time, nothing happens. But there’s that 1% where a pedestrian was not seen and gets crushed by a car making a rolling stop or no stop at all. To demand and force drivers to make full stops at stop signs to save the 1% is not an unreasonable request. 

  • El Barto

    another move towards making the streets less safe.

  • Bob Davis

    Reminds me of the fellow who said “We’d all be a lot safer if everyone drove like there was a police car behind them.”

  • When are they going to remove the traffic lights, those aren’t necessary either.

  • 1) I don’t have the timing for the “all red” signals.  I’m working on it but didn’t want to delay the article.

    2) Check it.  New Oxford dictionary says you can spell potato(e) either way, although without the e is more common.  Just ask Dan Quayle.

  • Anonymous

    I personally can’t stand these lights. Some yellow lights last longer than others. In west hollywood I got a ticket because the yellow light was really short compared to other lights in the city. It was almost as if they timed it that way on purpose so they can get the cash. So wrong… I’m glad they’re gone

  • Anonymous

    P.s. I hate the word boondoggle, people need to stop using it.

  • All Knowing

    Actually, traffic lights are mostly a tool for reducing congestion at intersections. They’re essentially electronic stop signs. You forget the traffic patterns of foreign countries that are remarkably efficient sans traffic lights, consider the cooperative traffic flows of ants.

  • All Knowing

    I’ll wager you can’t spell tomato correctly either, lol!
    Out of curiosity I checked the Oxford dictionary online, I only found the word spelled as “potato”. Regardless, with regard to your New Oxford dictionary, there are many controversies and opinions as to the correct or best dictionary, you may want to research this matter to determine the most appropriate dictionary for your writing. Most major newspaper editors and the Associated Press have a recommended dictionary.

  • ds

    Have you ever dealt with a red light camera? Red light cameras and heavy traffic do not mix.

    Sometimes you’re driving through an intersection and the traffic comes to an unexpected halt, and you have no room to back up. The red light camera doesn’t care.

    They also make it impossible to make a left turn at any camera-ed intersection in traffic, because you have to wait for the orange light in order to get space to turn, and it will turn red before you clear the intersection. People are going to be so desperate to make that turn before it turns red they’ll end up mowing down pedestrians.

    Unless someone can prove that these things actually improve safety (I.e. traffic studies without obvious gimmicks like ignoring the impact of all-red intervals), you have to assume they are nothing more than a scam to raise revenues and enrich politically connected contractors.

    Good riddance.

  • Anonymous

    While we are distracted by LA’s probable ban of the cameras, other
    cities are working to make it harder on us – and they are working FAST. 
    AB 529, by Asm. Gatto (Glendale), will allow cities to reduce posted
    speed limits by 5 mph.  That won’t slow traffic down (traffic flows at the speed the majority of drivers feel is safe), but the lower speed limits WILL allow cities
    to shorten yellows to produce more red light camera tickets (four of the
    sponsoring cities have red light cameras).  How many more tickets? 
    Since the average “late time” on a red light camera violation is about
    0.4 second, the 0.3 or 0.4 second shortening permitted by a 5 mph decrease in
    the posted limit will increase the number of tickets by at least 50%. 
    Plus, that amount of shortening is associated with a 30% higher rate of severe accidents. 

    This bill is moving along, rapidly, with a critical hearing
    scheduled at 1:30 p.m. today, June 14.

    If you never ride in or drive a car, rest easy.  But if you use a car and are concerned, phone your assemblyperson and
    your state senator, no later than noon today.  It takes no more than
    a couple minutes per call. And then if you have more time, phone your auto club
    and ask them to oppose AB 529.

  • This week, members of the Los Angeles City Council will consider removing intersection safety cameras from Los Angeles streets. 


    We ask you to sign the petition below urging Council members to support safety cameras which are critical life-saving tools on Los Angeles roadways.

    Please visit to sign our petition and also
    visit to receive
    future updates from our organization.

  • SA Hombre

    Yuck! Glad I don’t live there. Unfortunately, due to the economy, the many Californians (and others) that are invading Texas are bringing their big government ideas here so it’s just a matter of time that “great” ideas like this are forced upon us under the pretense of safety.

  • “due to the economy, the many Californians (and others) that are invading Texas”

    Then they are foolish. Texas is in no better shape than California.

    “Perry, a Republican, campaigned on the strength of the Texas economy and made political hay of the fact the Lone Star state had avoided California’s massive deficit, pegged at $25.4 billion through the upcoming budget year.
    Now Texas faces a budget deficit estimated as high as $27 billion for the upcoming two-year cycle of 2012-2013. To close the gap, state legislators have proposed steep cuts in funding to education and welfare programs.California and Texas are in similar budgetary dire straits following a painful U.S. recession that severely crimped state tax receipts and other critical revenue sources.”Good luck.

  • SA Hombre

    That video is sensationalistic propaganda. With the exception of two instances, these are not representative of the most typical scenario of a driver trying to beat a yellow light turning red.

    The video cites the examples as drivers ignoring red lights. What it doesn’t acknowledge is why those drivers blatantly ignored the red light. Were they all distracted (most likely), under the influence of drugs/alcohol, had a death wish, or innocently color-blind. Except for two instances, red light cameras would not have prevented (discouraged) any of the examples shown.

  • @fd402c8cc993bfc0304692e4205ac9b4:disqus 

    > Sometimes you’re driving through an intersection and the traffic comes to an unexpected halt, and you have no room to back up. The red light camera doesn’t care.

    That’s not how light cameras work. In the situation you describe, nothing would happen to the motorist caught in the intersection. 

    The cameras trigger if you break the plane of the intersection after the light turns red. If you are already in the plane, it doesn’t trigger.

    So, to reiterate, the only time that camera goes off is if you are not in the intersection, e.g. behind the white line, _before_ the light turns red and _after_ the light turns rend you then cross into the intersection…

    In other words, it only goes off if you run the red light.

  • You are factually incorrect that “all-red” times are a total of .1 seconds.  The all-red times that were implemented at camera intersections are all at least 1 second and many are longer than that.  The all-red phase is critical to reducing accidents as it protects the cross traffic from vehicles that enter the intersection at the end of the yellow phase (and the first few tenths of a second of the red phase which is where the vast majority of red-light violations occur due to yellow lights that are too short).  There is no question that the all red phase and longer yellow times that were implemented before the cameras were put in made a significant improvement in safety at these intersections.  At intersections where these changes were implemented, one would expect to see a reduction in red light related accidents, exactly as the LAPD claims has occurred.   This is what the Controller’s audit said about this on page 26, “That change alone could have made the intersections safer”, and “without a formal engineering survey, attributing these results solely to automated enforcement is questionable”.  Plus, the 62% statistic cited by the LAPD only holds when comparing a very specific time period.  According to the same data in the Controller’s audit, accidents increased by over 53% at PRL intersections between 2008 and 2009. 

  • From their website: The Traffic Safety Coalition is funded by the traffic safety camera industry and its supporters…It is shameful that the for profit camera companies use the grief experienced by those who lost loved ones in traffic accidents to help line their own pockets by suggesting that red light cameras would have had any effect on preventing those accidents. The vast majority of fatal and serious red-light running collisions are due to impairment, distraction and fatigue, things the red-light cameras can’t prevent.

    Don’t be fooled into helping these companies with their for profit agenda. The only thing they are interested in is their bottom line. These same companies continually resist the move to lengthen yellow lights because that would drastically cut down on violations and the camera companies can’t make money that way. In some cases they have even encouraged jurisdictions to shorten yellow lights. If you are really interested in safety, why would you ever advocate that?

  • You wrote: “When the Federal Highway Administration discusses the conflict between pedestrians and automobiles it ranks “right on red” as the top concern”.

    The link you provide in this quote is broken. Do you have an updated link so we can see exactly what that FHWA said?

    The statement above is curious because in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s report entitled, “The Safety Impact of Right Turn On Red Report To Congress”, this is what it says, but remember that this for all right turns on red, not just rolling right turns on red:

    Less than 0.2 percent of all fatalities involved a right-turning vehicle maneuver at an intersection where RTOR is permitted. FARS, however, does not discern whether the traffic signal was red. Therefore, the actual number of fatal RTOR crashes is somewhere between zero and 84 and may be closer to zero than 84.

    •    Right-Turn-On-Red crashes represent a very small proportion of the total number of traffic crashes in the four states (0.05 percent).
    •    RTOR injury and fatal crashes represent a fraction of 1 percent of all fatal and injury crashes (0.06 percent).
    •    RTOR crashes represent a very small proportion of signalized intersection crashes (0.4 percent).
    •    When a RTOR crash occurs, a pedestrian or bicyclist is frequently involved. For all four states for all years studied, the proportion of RTOR pedestrian or bicyclist crashes to all RTOR crashes was 22 percent.
    •    RTOR pedestrian and bicyclist crashes usually involve injury. Ninety-three percent of RTOR pedestrian or bicyclist crashes resulted in injury.
    •    Only 1 percent of RTOR pedestrian and bicyclist crashes resulted in fatal injury. However, less than one percent (0.2 percent) of all fatal pedestrian and bicyclist crashes result from a RTOR vehicle maneuver.
    •    RTOR pedestrian crashes are about evenly split between females and males, while RTOR bicyclist crashes predominately involve males.
    •    Most RTOR crashes occur between 6 am and 6 pm.

    In conclusion, there are a relatively small number of deaths and injuries each year caused by right-turn-on-red crashes. These represent a very small percentage of all crashes, deaths, and injuries. Because the number of crashes due to right-turn-on-red is small, the impact on traffic safety, therefore, has also been small.
    Here’s what this means. Nationwide, .01% or 1 in 10,000 of all right turn on red crashes involved a pedestrian or bicyclist and resulted in injury.   However, that statistic is for all right turn on red crashes, not just those that involved a vehicle making a rolling right turn on red.  Therefore the number of crashes that involved a pedestrian or bicyclist where a vehicle was making a rolling right turn on red must be less than 1 in 10,000.  In addition, some portion of those crashes is likely to have been caused by the pedestrian or bicyclist as opposed to the motorist.  The risk of crashes due to motorists making a rolling right turn on red is so small that no previous studies have ever quantified it.  So we did that for Los Angeles.  Here’s what we found:

    1.  No fatalities to bicyclists due to rolling right turns for any of the years for which data were available.

    2.  The average number of rolling-right-turn collisions each year was 45 out of an average of approximately 56,000 collisions annually in the City of L.A.  This represent just 0.079% of all accidents per year in the City of Los Angeles, an extremely low percentage.

    3.  The majority of collisions were classified as resulting in minimal or no injuries, even when pedestrians or bicyclists were involved.  

    4.  The average number of collisions for failure to yield after stopping first at the red light and then turning right was 41.  This suggests that when making a right turn at a red light, it is not the prior stop which determines whether an accident will occur, it is whether or not the driver yields appropriately.

    5. The chance that a rolling-right-turn will result in a collision is 0.00029%.  This means that a driver would have to make over 345,000 rolling-right-turns before they might be involved in an accident.  In actuality though, a careful driver who yields appropriately prior to making a right turn on red, whether or not they come to a complete stop, may never be involved in a collision due to this behavior.

    6.  For comparison, about three times as many accidents are caused each year by drivers opening their car door into passing traffic.

    Again, for anyone who doubts these numbers, you should read our report on rolling right turns available at the link in my previous comment.  Also, we will be happy to show you the underlying data from the CHP database if you contact us.

  • You wrote: “A look at crash fatality statistics nationwide shows that in Los Angeles, almost one quarter of all crash fatalities are pedestrians”.

    But you have to look at the causes of those accidents to see how to prevent them.  For 2009 there were 80 pedestrian fatalities in LA listed in the database.  This represents about 33% of all fatalities which seems like a high number.  However, about 5 of those were due to unknown factors or that occurred not in a roadway. When you look at what caused the collisions, you find that almost half, 47% were caused by the pedestrian.  Also, there were only 4 fatalities due to red-light running and none involved a right turn, much less a rolling right turn.  Two of those 4 involved an impaired driver.  (The database shows no fatalites due to rolling right turns for any of the years the data is available, 2002-2009).  Comparing the 2009 numbers to 2004 before the cameras were installed, we find that the exact same percentage of LA fatalities were pedestrian fatalities, 33%.  There were about 5 pedestrian fatalities due to red-light running, about the same as in 2009 but they represent a smaller percentage because there were more overall pedestrian fatalities.  Also, the percentage of fatalities due to the pedestrian was 57%.  So even with the millions of dollars we’ve spent on the camera program, there has been no change in the percentage of pedestrian fatalities and no change in the number due to red-light running.

    By the way, where the driver was at fault for the accident, the largest number of pedestrian fatalities were caused by failure to yield at an unsignalized crosswalk (either marked or unmarked). This suggests that we should concentrate on improvements in this area.  We have suggested installing a new kind of pedestrian activated crosswalk sign called a Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon sign which costs much less that a conventional overhead flashing crosswalk sign, $10,000 vs $80,000.  Studies have shown that drivers yield up to 90% of the time when these are installed and activated.  For the money we are spending on the red-light camera program, the city could install 300 of these per year throughout the city.  Over the 5+ years we’ve been running the camera program, that’s 1500 of these signs.  Many pedestrian fatalities might have been prevented if these signs were in place.  The argument against the camera program is not that it’s losing money (although it is) it’s that the money being spent isn’t making us safer and it isn’t available to put in the kinds of improvements that would actually make our streets safer.

  • The safety benefit of longer yellow signal times has been proven in a number of studies.  In a 2004 Texas DOT study, traffic engineers Bonneson and Zimmerman noted that when the yellow interval duration is set  one second longer than the “minimum time” based on the 85th percentile speed, violations decreased by 53% and crashes decreased by 40%.

    In Loma Linda, after they lengthened their yellow light times, violations dropped by over 90% immediately and have remained down.  Think about the implications of that for a moment.  Let’s say for example that in the month of June they had 100 red light violations. On July 1st they lengthened the yellow time by 1 second so for that month there were only 10 violations.  What does this tell you about the 90 other violations?  That they were inadvertent and did have to happen.  Simply changing the yellow timing caused them to disappear.  

    A similar 30% to 55% reduction in violations achieved at San Diego red-light camera sites when the yellow interval times were increased by as little as .2 -.4 seconds.  Likewise, Fairfax County, VA achieved a significant, sustained reduction in violations when the yellow timing was increased by ½ second.  Although red-light cameras were present at these intersections during the entire review period, a dramatic reduction in violations was seen only after the yellow timing was increased.  For example, at RT7 & Towlson, where red-light cameras were monitoring the intersection, there was an average of 705 violations per month.  When the yellow light time was lengthened by ½ second, the violations dropped to an average of 207 per month, a 71% reduction.  At the intersection of US 50 and Fair Ridge Dr., violations averaged 1209 per month, even with cameras present. When the yellow light time was lengthened by ½ second, the violations dropped to an average of 82 per month, a 93% reduction.  You can see all this information with charts and graphics in our report “Maximizing Safety At Signalized Intersections Through Increased Yellow And All-Red Signal Phases” available here:  While you’re there, you should check out our report on improving pedestrian safety, I think you will agree with most of what’s in that document.

    All this is not to say that there aren’t some very bad drivers out there that put others at risk and should be off the road.  I often find myself calling the LAPD to report drivers that seem to be impaired or are driving in an unsafe manner.  I don’t know you, but I suspect that we both have similar interests, having the roadways be safer.  We happen to disagree that red-light cameras are an efficient way to do that.  I think they allocate financial and police resources in an inefficient way, enrich an Arizona company that has a spotty record on telling the truth, and keep us from focusing on those things that would actually make us safer such as more lighted pedestrian crosswalk signs, dedicated bike lanes, etc.

  • Douglas

    are you kidding me ? … RED light cameras are just SCAM … I never got a red light ticket in my life but i HATE those cameras and everything they stand for … ESPECIALLY the rolling right turn scam which is proof they are there to make money …