New & Now

Red Light, Green Light: Tickets notwithstanding, traffic cameras may be motorists' best friends.

JUST OVER A CENTURY ago, engineers working at Henry Ford’s sprawling new factory in Highland Park, Mich., perfected what came to be known as the “assembly line,” the revolutionary manufacturing method that allowed them to produce a new Model T every 93 minutes. Consumers couldn’t get enough of these inexpensive, reliable motor vehicles, and soon millions of them were rolling off Ford’s assembly line and onto the nation’s streets.

America’s love affair with the car had arrived, along with, sadly, the advent of the motor vehicle injury accident. Because intersections were particularly accident prone, a Detroit police official in 1920 came up with the world’s first automated, four-way, red-yellow-green traffic signal. It worked to perfection, except, of course, when those in a hurry chose to race through stoplights.

Scofflaws speeding through signals remain a problem, says Carlos Sun, an associate professor of civil engineering at MU. Sun is the author of a recent study that considers a more contemporary technological innovation meant to impose intersection order — the oft-maligned red-light and vehicle-speed cameras.

Sun says statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicate almost a third of all traffic fatalities are speed related, and that running red lights accounts for 883 fatalities and 165,000 injuries in the U.S. each year. His research, based on an examination of traffic enforcement data from around the world, affirmed that red-light cameras and other automated speed enforcement devices do have a legitimate safety purpose. Not only do drivers behave better when cameras are present, simply knowing that cameras are used by a jurisdiction tends to create a calming “spillover effect” among drivers. Motorists in places known to use cameras tended toward a greater respect for traffic laws even at camera-free intersections.

But what about complaints that red-light cameras often ensnare drivers exercising their legal right to proceed through a yellow signal? Or fears that unscrupulous third-party camera operators may unfairly ticket drivers in order to boost their company’s bottom lines?

“A red light camera is not a panacea for traffic problems,” says Sun. “But it is a very effective tool for safe and efficient transportation. Just like any other tool, it should be used responsibly in the proper situation.”

What’s more, Sun says, checks and balances among traffic engineers, traffic enforcement officials, city administrators, legislators and concerned citizens are almost always sufficient to curb potential abuses.

“There are many parties from separate branches of the government involved in the operation of an intersection,” Sun said. “If people wanted to create a scheme to make money, it would have to involve many people who all have a charge to do their duty well.” In short, he says, fears of red-light-camera conspiracies are overblown. The upside, meanwhile — fewer deaths and serious injuries on our roadways — is tangible and indisputable.

Sun’s study appeared earlier this year in the Journal of Transportation Law, Logistics and Policy. The research was conducted with the assistance of Troy Rule, a professor of law at MU.


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