Why Red Light Cameras Make Streets and Cities Safer for Everyone

They're not out to get you. They're out to make the roads safer.
They’re not out to get you. They’re out to make the roads safer for everyone.

If you’re like most drivers in the United States, you probably have a negative opinion of red light cameras, especially those close to where you drive. Sure, on the surface, the idea of cameras to catch people running red lights might not sound like a good idea, but everyone really knows they’re just around to catch people and give tickets, right?

Not at all. The truth is that red light camera programs are actually quite effective in reducing instances of red light running, as well as fatal crashes resulting from red light running. But how much of an issue is this? How many people are actually dying, how effective are the cameras, and how do we keep our loved ones safe in a political climate where people and legislators are opposed to technology that makes us safer? Let’s take a look together below.

How many people die or are injured from red light running crashes?

Per FARS data, in 2014, 709 people died from crashes involving red light running, while an estimated 126,000 were injured. Given that there were 32,675 deaths overall, the 709 made up a small (2%) fraction, but still a needlessly large one. One out of every 50 traffic deaths resulted from individuals attempting to cross an intersection when the light system indicated they no longer had the right of way.

Do the red light runners die more often, or the people they hit?

Sadly, the primary victims of red light runners are rarely the runners themselves;  per the IIHS, the majority of victims are either people occupying the vehicles impacted by the vehicle without the right of way, passengers in the vehicle without the right of way, pedestrians, or cyclists.

Do red light cameras actually reduce red light running and fatalities?

Yes! When enforcement is automated, drivers are less likely to run lights. This is more effective than traditional police enforcement, since it occurs 24 hours a day without the need for officers at given intersections. Cameras also serve as greater forms of deterrence when made public, and also have much better “vision” than manual methods, since they’re always at their intersections. Per the IIHS, red light running fatalities decreased by 21% in cities with activated cameras compared while all kinds of fatal crashes at intersections with signals decreased by 14%. The general decrease at signalized intersections was hypothesized to greater overall caution by drivers cognizant of the presence  of cameras in other areas of town.

What happens when red light cameras are removed?

In contrast, when red light cameras were turned off in cities, rates of red light running fatalities increased by 30% while all signalized intersection fatalities increased by 16%. To put it simply, when cameras are removed, drivers revert to old, unsafe, and potentially deadly habits. Cameras make the roads safer for everyone. But opposition to them makes the roads more dangerous for all of us.

What can I do to keep my family safe from red light runners?

Unfortunately, there’s very little you can do to protect your loved ones from red light runners at an individual level, as this is another one of the many societal problems that needs societal solutions. Just as we can’t fully inoculate ourselves from the effects of drunk drivers or speeders, there’s only so much we can do individually to keep our loved ones alive in a driving culture where driving isn’t taken seriously.

To keep people safe in general from red light runners, we need to reduce a culture of disregard for safety and increase a culture of respect for the road. Ideally, this might be achieved by educating people of all ages of the advantages of following traffic laws, but practically, we’re most likely to stop red light running when the vast majority of vehicles on the road are autonomously controlled. I’ll discuss this below before providing individual solutions.

Why would autonomous cars eliminate red light running fatalities?

The reason autonomous cars are the technological solution most likely to eliminate fatalities from running red lights is because self-driven vehicles (truly self-driven ones, not Teslas on “Autopilot”) don’t run red lights. They’re programmed to behave like regular drivers to varying degrees, but they’re also programmed to avoid breaking blatant traffic laws, unlike human drivers. As with vaccines, however, for full effectiveness, you need the vast majority of individuals (in this case, vehicles) in a population to be inoculated (or in this case, self-driven).

Even before reaching a critical mass of autonomous vehicles where enough people began to use them to make their adoption inevitable, you’d still be much safer in a self-driving car at a red light intersection than in a regular one, as an autonomous car would have an array of camera, radar, and laser systems to help detect and avoid perpendicular traffic at intersections.

Until self-driving vehicles are available, what can I do for my family’s safety on an individual level?

My general suggestions for reducing your loved ones’ odds of injury or death in traffic collisions are closely tied to my specific suggestions for avoiding red light collisions. The best solution is to avoid driving entirely; since self-driving vehicles aren’t currently on the market and will likely not be for at least some years to come, I’d recommend using public transportation (i.e., buses and trains) as much as possible. Due to their sizes, both kinds of vehicles are essentially immune to red-light runners, and your odds of survival without death or serious injury are much higher in buses and trains.

If you can’t use public transportation, which is the case with many in the US, my next suggestion would be to exercise extreme caution whenever entering an intersection that has recently turned “green.” Having the right of way doesn’t immunize us from the possibility of being broadsided by inattentive or negligent drivers, and taking a second or two to survey the intersection you’re about to cross on a fresh green life could save your life.

Finally, I’d recommend making sure that whatever you’re driving is equipped with side airbags with head and torso protection at a minimum if a driver, and at least head protection for rear passengers. Ideally, the vehicle should also feature a “good” side impact score from the IIHS. This doesn’t guarantee you’ll survive a red light collision if you’re unlucky enough to be involved in one, but it does significantly increase your odds of doing so, especially if you’re impacted by a vehicle weighing around 3,300 lbs or less (e.g., a mid-sized car or small SUV) and traveling at 31 mph or less, as this is exactly the kind of crash the IIHS’ side impact test is designed to simulate. My side impact resistance guides for small cars, cars overall, SUVs, small SUVs, and minivans address the leading vehicles in impact resistance.

What about rear-facing vs forward-facing? Does that impact red light running crash safety for kids?

Absolutely! A red light running crash is almost always a side impact collision, or a t-bone, and, as with almost every crash situation, it’s safer to be rear-facing during one than it is to be forward-facing, as the forward momentum of your vehicle will drive a child further into a rear-facing car seat (as opposed to directly out of a forward-facing car seat), giving the sides of the seat a much greater chance to protect the child from the forces (and potentially the intrusion) of the impacting vehicle. Once again, rear-face to the limits. The Fllo, Foonf, Rainier, Pacifica, and Extend2Fit make it easy to reach 5 year or 50 pounds before forward-facing.

If you find the information on car safety, recommended car seats, and car seat reviews on this car seat blog helpful, you can bookmark and shop through this Amazon link. Canadians can bookmark and shop through this link.

You Might Also Like:

Car Crashes: The Safest and Most Dangerous States for Drivers

New York is safer than average in the US for crash death risk.
If you live in New York, you live in one of the safest states in the country, traffic-wise, with a per capita death rate half the national average.

When it comes to road safety in the United States, not all states are created equally. While the overall death rate per capita from motor vehicle crashes in the US is approximately 10.2 deaths per 100,000 people (in 2014), the death rates per capita from one state to the next can vary significantly.

While the death rate per capita isn’t a perfect measure of driving risk, it is the most common way of comparing the risk of being killed by auto traffic from one place to the next, and it’s the best general way of judging one’s risk of death by traffic as an average citizen in a given area. With that in mind, which states are the safest, which are the most dangerous, and how do they compare to foreign countries with similar populations?

The most dangerous state for drivers per capita in 2014

Wyoming won the dubious distinction in 2014 of being the state with the highest death rate per capita in the US, with a fatality rate of 25.7 individuals per 100,000. With a population of 584,153 people, that translated to 150 deaths. In comparison, in 2014, Iceland, with a population of 329,100 people, experienced its best year since 1939 with 4 deaths, or a fatality rate of 1.22 per 100,000.

Iceland had an incredibly low death rate per capita in 2014
If you lived in Iceland in 2014, you’d have been 21x less likely to die from a road crash than if you’d lived in Wyoming.

What a difference! This is a nation with a similar population size to that of a local state, yet one where the average citizen was 21 times less likely to die by auto. Had Wyoming rate been as low as Iceland’s in 2014, only 5 individuals would have died instead of 150.

That’s huge.

In comparison, with a road fatality rate of 25.7 per 100,000 individuals, Wyoming was as unsafe as a number of nations most people in the United States would think they had nothing in common with, like South Africa (25.1), Ethiopia (25.3), Somalia (25.4), and Mali (25.6), per the WHO.

Here’s what an Icelandic official had to say about this figure:

“Our goal is naturally that no one dies in traffic and four fatal accidents are four too many,” said Ágúst Mogensen, chief of investigation of traffic accidents at the Icelandic Transportation Safety Board.

Even so, one can point out this achievement in traffic safety and hopefully, we will experience a year when there are no fatal accidents,” he concluded.

It sounds a  lot like what a Norwegian official said about their country’s progress last year when they experienced one of their lowest road fatality rates in history. However, you’d be hard pressed to find a similar statement from officials in Wyoming, unfortunately, and not just because Wyoming came in last.

Year after year, there’s a much greater acceptance of road fatalities in the US compared to prevailing attitudes in many of our fellow wealthy countries, and it’s related to the relentless inevitability of the automobile. There aren’t really any other options to driving throughout large parts of the country, and the auto is associated with our national identity to a much greater degree than is the case in many of our fellow wealthy nations.

What if Iceland just got lucky in 2014?

That’s a great question! Maybe the 1.22 road fatality rate was a fluke. The following year, Iceland would experience many more road fatalities, putting this theory to the test. However, while the Icelandic rate jumped significantly..it still remained far, far better than the Wyoming rate. In 2015, Iceland had an estimated population of 329,425 people, and suffered 16 fatalities, a figure fourfold higher than that in 2014. However, this still led to a much better road fatality rate at 4.86 per 100,000.

How good is a bad year in Iceland (it was their worst year since 2009, where they experienced 17 deaths) compared to a good year for a US state? Let’s take a look at the safest states per capita in 2014 and find out.

The safest states for drivers per capita in 2014

Not counting the District of Columbia, which is, for all intents and purposes, a city and not a state, the states with the lowest death rate per capita in 2014 were Massachusetts and Rhode Island, both of which had road fatality rates of 4.9, or less than half of the overall US road fatality rate of 10.2.

Citizens in Mass. and Rhode Island as safe as those in Finland.
Citizens in Mass. and Rhode Island were as safe as those in Finland when it came to risks of dying from road crashes.

You’ll note that 4.9 is essentially the same road fatality rate as that experienced by Iceland last year (2015), which was not a particularly good year at all for Iceland. That aside, it’s something to be proud of; the safest states in the US, in terms of the average person’s risk of dying via auto trauma, were as safe as one of the safest countries on the planet. Massachusetts had a population of 6,745,408, and suffered 328 deaths. Rhode Island, with a much smaller population of 1,055,173, suffered 52 deaths. New York was barely edged out in 3rd place, with a population of 19,746,227, a road fatality rate of 5.3 per 100,000, and 1,039 deaths.

To put things another way, your odds of dying from a road crash in Mass. and Rhode Island in 2014 were equivalent to your odds of dying from a road crash in Finland in 2013; the population was roughly 5,375,000 while there were 258 deaths, producing a rate of 4.8, per the International Transport Forum, which compares 38 nations annually for road safety trends.

What the numbers tell us is that there are places in the US where your risks of dying from auto traffic are as low as they are in some of the safest areas overseas. There are safer European nations than Iceland and Finland; in 2013, Sweden, the UK, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Israel, Spain, and Norway all had road fatality rates beneath 4 per 100,000. However, even if the best US states weren’t fully comparable to the safest countries per capita, they came close. Unfortunately, there were also lots of states that did very, very poorly. As noted, Wyoming was no safer than Somalia for drivers; there were plenty of other states that also had surprising equivalents across the globe in terms of road safety.

On a positive note, there were a number of states that were safer than the US average of 10.2 in 2014: Alaska (9.9), California (7.9), Colorado (9.1), Connecticut (6.9), Hawaii (6.7), Illinois (7.2), Maine (9.8), Maryland (7.4), Massachusetts and Rhode Island (4.9), Michigan (9.1), Minnesota (6.6), New Hampshire (7.2), New Jersey (6.2), New York (5.3), Ohio (8.7), Oregon (9), Pennsylvania (9.3), Utah (8.7), Vermont (7.0), Virginia (8.4), Washington (6.5), and Wisconsin (8.8).

That said, we have much work to do.

What do I do to keep my family safe (whether when driving, walking, or cycling) if we live in an unsafe state?

This is a great question, and it’s one I frequently get from parents concerned about overall road safety. Keep in mind that the above statistics involve people killed by auto traffic whether or not they were in vehicles themselves. In other words, pedestrians and cyclists also feature into the numbers.

When driving, I typically suggest to stick to the basics of driving safely. In particular, making sure every occupant is buckled on every drive, only driving with a 0.00% BAC, and driving the speed limit every single time will make your occupants safer than those of 90% of vehicle occupants on the road.

I would completely avoid motorcycles and scooters. They offer no more protection than bicycles while traveling at much higher speeds among much heavier and more fortified vehicles. It’s the worst of both worlds.

When navigating roadways as a pedestrian, only cross at crosswalks, look both ways, use sidewalks whenever available (I’d go as far as to recommend avoiding any roadways that don’t feature them), and only walk during the daytime.

I’d recommend cycling only on streets with speed limits of 20 mph or below. For streets with higher speed limits, I’d avoid cycling except on protected (segregated) lanes. Unfortunately, these conditions are very hard to meet in most places in the United States, which makes it hard to recommend cycling in many to most parts of the country. We have a long way to go in our respect toward the most vulnerable members of the road.

If you find the information on car safety, recommended car seats, and car seat reviews on this car seat blog helpful, you can bookmark and shop through this Amazon link. Canadians can bookmark and shop through this link.

You Might Also Like:

35,000 Americans will die this year on the road. You don't have to be one of them. A car seat and car safety blog to promote best practices for families.