Red-light cameras found to reduce fatalities

Baltimore is among the cities to see fewer deaths

February 01, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Red-light cameras — reviled by many motorists as an intrusion by "Big Brother" — saved 159 lives in Baltimore and 13 other U.S. cities over a five-year period, according to a study to be released Tuesday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The report said its study of traffic fatalities in 99 large cities suggested that 815 lives might have been saved if all those cities had installed such cameras.

Baltimore was one of 14 cities that had such cameras in operation during the study, which monitored the record of the cameras from 2004 to 2008. Its 14 percent reduction in deaths attributed to red-light running was smaller than in several other cities, but the small numbers involved — a reduction from 14 in the years 1992-1996 to 11 during the study period — may call into question the statistical significance of the result.

The study found that in all the cities that used cameras, the rate of red-light-running fatalities was 24 percent lower than it would have been had they not been installed. Some cities with higher numbers of red-light fatalities achieved more dramatic results than Baltimore, including a 45 percent decline in Phoenix and a 32 percent drop in Chicago.

Washington achieved a 26 percent reduction, but as in Baltimore, the numbers were relatively small, a drop from 22 to 17.

Russ Rader, a spokesman for the institute, said the national results demonstrate the value of the red-light cameras, which have met with resistance in many parts of the country.

"The bottom line is the cities that have had the courage to implement red-light camera programs despite the political backlash are saving lives," he said.

Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, offered qualified support for red-light cameras as long as they are operated under proper guidelines and oversight..

"We're in support of them as long as we're assured they're being done with safety at the forefront and not as a means of revenue generation," she said.

Despite opposition from some politicians, the use of red-light cameras has been increasing. Rader said there are now about 500 U.S. communities that have deployed the cameras, compared with about 25 a decade ago.

Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, said she views red-light cameras as an "absolutely critical" tool in reaching the group's goal of a 1,000-a-year-reduction in the U.S. highway death toll over the next 20 years. The cities in the study all had populations greater than 200,000, but even some smaller areas are now using the cameras.

"There are simply not enough resources to put a police officer at every intersection, and enforcement at intersections is often dangerous," she said. "Cameras deployed in areas with a history of intersection crashes are a proven safety tool."

But Lorenzo Gaztanaga, spokesman for the Libertarian Party of Maryland, questioned the results of the study and the objectivity of the institute, which is financed by the insurance industry. But even if the results are valid, he said, the cameras are philosophically objectionable.

"It's just a money-maker. It's really shameful," he said. ""It's an intrusion and it's a violation of rights."

Baltimore first deployed red-light cameras in 1999, becoming one of the first 25 cities to adopt the technology. A lawsuit challenging the program was dismissed. The city now has 78 red-light cameras deployed at intersections around the city and could add a few more this year. The city collected $75 fines on 183,239 camera-generated red-light tickets last year, more than doubling its total in 2008.

According to the city Department of Transportation, Baltimore has had a 60 percent decrease in red-light violations at the intersections where the cameras are deployed.

In the years since the use of red-light cameras began to be widely deployed in the late 1990s, there have been numerous studies of their effectiveness. Some have found that installation of the cameras is associated with an increase in rear-end collision, but studies have also found they tend reduce the number of more dangerous right-angle crashes.

The institute's study, which it characterized as the first to focus on fatal intersection crashes, said the results were unequivocal.

"Cities wishing to reduce fatal crashes at signalized intersections should consider red-light camera enforcement," it said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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