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Are Red Light Cameras A Safety Hazard?

Among the many things in the new century that drivers love to hate, red light cameras are surely near the top of the list. These intrusive devices have become the bane of city driving at intersections across America. Aside from the budget busting cost of the tickets generated by these cameras, the concept of being monitored and photographed by the government while inside their own vehicle can be annoying, unnerving, and more than a little creepy to many drivers. Add to that the burden of proof placed on the poor soul unlucky enough to be caught in the snare of one or more of these traps around an intersection, and 2011 is more like 1984.

There are many reasons given to support the use of red light cameras, and, not surprisingly, they are all staunchly defended by both local cash strapped governments in search of revenue and the companies who install and maintain them in search of cash cows. There is, however, one aspect to the whole Red Light Camera debate which I believe, from my own personal experience, is just flat out, dangerously wrong.


Proponents of red light cameras claim that the primary reason for having them is to deter drivers from running red lights, which, at least in theory, reduces the number of accidents at a given intersection and makes it safer for drivers, pedestrians, everyone.

Opponents of such devices say they are only there to generate revenue for local governments and red light camera companies, and actually cause more accidents than they prevent. Many concerned and frustrated drivers turn to photo enforcement defense to protect themselves and their wallets from such threats.

Numerous studies have been performed on this very issue. Some studies show that red light cameras decrease the number of accidents and fatalities at intersections where they are installed; other studies show an increase. In other words, the results are mixed. Based on the collective data from all of them combined, the outcome of each study seems to depend somewhat on the study itself: who performed the study, how the study was performed and, most importantly, who funded it.

According to some of these studies, red light cameras and the red lights that accommodate them are tweaked to deliver maximum revenue potential. Whether that allegation is actually true or not may necessitate a study of its own. However, at least a few of those studies seem to be corroborated by the drivers who encounter red lights equipped with cameras and report that the duration of yellow caution lights at such intersections often drops from the traditional five seconds, down to three seconds or less.

Consider also that for some reason (whether intentional or not) some of these cameras seem a little trigger happy when the lights are still yellow and there is little doubt why some drivers are a bit suspicious when it comes to true motive for these contraptions.

Numbers can be manipulated, but facts are facts. The fact is, I feel more at risk of having an accident at an intersection equipped with these camera traps than one without. I feel it. It's that sense of heightened awareness and foreboding that at any second, the light can change and put me in the dangerous position of either risking a ticket or risking an accident by trying to avoid one.

Here is a classic example of why I think red light cameras actually serve to cause accidents instead of prevent them. This is a true story.

On the afternoon of December 31, 2010, my family and I drove from Charlotte, North Carolina to Wilmington to ring in the new year with my sister, brother-in-law and young nephew. With me was my wife, my 12 year old daughter, my 11 year old son and his dog. The three hour trip covered city and highway, starting with a long stretch of road that was a little of both.

This latter portion of road, while technically built as a highway, went right through various towns, and the first third of those had a number of red light intersections. They were generally not equipped with red light cameras and I didn't worry about them. I didn't run any, either. Aside from heavy traffic flow, the trip to Wilmington was largely uneventful.

Then we entered Wilmington. The sun had set and it was now early evening. As soon as we entered town, we encountered red light camera traps. We felt trapped, because they were at nearly every intersection along our route. Suddenly I was on high alert.

Green lights went yellow and almost instantly changed to red. It seemed as though all these intersections were rigged to catch any driver they could whether that driver intended to run a red light or not. I slowed the car down and approached each intersection carefully, ready to brake at the first sign of a yellow light. Yet I still had to maintain a reasonable speed to prevent disrupting the flow of traffic and angering drivers behind me.

The yellow lights did not last long but I was cautious enough to anticipate the changes and stop in time. In fact, I was so focused on the lights I found it difficult to concentrate on the rest of the road. The red light cameras themselves were a major distraction.

While we were waiting at one light, I glanced at the intersection a few blocks ahead. The lights at that intersection turned yellow. A car ahead of us entered the intersection just as the lights went red. Flash! Flash! Flash! The entire intersection lit up as if it were high noon. Great, I thought. If all the lights on this road are timed properly, I should be able to make it through that light on the next cycle while it's still green.

We got the green light at our stop and we moved forward. A few moments later the light at the next intersection turned green as well, and I thought we had it made.

I was wrong.

Just as we approached the light, it turned yellow. I was well within the speed limit, but we were so close there was no time to stop safely without violently slamming on the brakes. Worse yet, there was a car right behind me with no sign of slowing down. If I suddenly stopped, he would not be able to react in time and likely plow right into us. On the other hand, based on what happened to the last car, I knew I wouldn't make the yellow light.

My first reaction was to hit the brake, but logic overruled instinct. I had to make a split second decision: either run the light and get a ticket I could not afford - or slam on the brakes and get hit from behind, hurting or possibly even killing those in the car behind me, myself, or, worse, the ones I love.

I decided to keep going. As I passed underneath, I looked up. Yellow turned to red just as the traffic light passed over the windshield and out of sight. My pulse quickened, I held my breath, and turned my gaze back to the road. For a moment my mind went blank. I stared straight ahead, waiting for the dreaded three flashes of light to flood my peripheral vision.

If the flashes came, I didn't notice them. We made it safely across the intersection without causing an accident. I haven't received a ticket in the mail yet, either, although we all know that doesn't necessarily mean anything.

All I know is this. In one brief moment I had to decide whether to prevent a ticket and have an accident, or have a ticket and prevent an accident. When it comes to red light camera traps, you can be punished for doing the right thing. You can lose either way.

You can have the studies. My position on red light cameras is based on my actual experiences with them. I find them dangerous, not only to my rights, but to my safety - and the safety of those with and around me.

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