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Are Red Light Cameras Legal?

Red light cameras have been popping up in cities all across the country since the early 1990s. However, they’ve not done so without a bit of controversy.

If you’ve ever unexpectedly received a ticket in the mail from one of these cameras, we can likely guess which side of the debate you’re on. So are red light cameras legal? Let’s take a closer look and see!

What Are Red Light Cameras?

Red light cameras are advanced technology devices mounted at traffic lights. These devices photograph vehicles that violate a traffic signal that has turned red. Since law enforcement can’t stop every violator who runs a red light, these cameras can monitor intersections without wasting resources.

Red light cameras aim to increase the safety of intersections by reducing the number of individuals who speed through them after the light has turned red. While they first appeared in New York City in the early 1990s, they began gaining popularity in the early 2000s and peaked in popularity in 2012.

While many people initially supported red light cameras, public support has waned, which is likely why we’ve seen a decline in usage throughout the country. 

How Do Red Light Cameras Work?

Red light cameras continuously monitor traffic flow at intersections and traffic signal cycles. The cameras monitor crosswalks or stop lines and photograph any vehicles that don’t stop during the red phase of the traffic light cycle. Typically, law enforcement will only issue a citation in a case where it’s clear that a vehicle has run the red light.

Like toll violation cameras, many systems are smart enough to detect violations and automatically generate a citation sent to the address where the vehicle is registered. Red light camera violations are typically treated as civil offenses and not moving violations.

This means drivers don’t face any points or potential insurance hikes.

However, in Arizona, California, and Oregon, citations are treated no differently than if a traffic enforcement officer issued a driver a citation.

The legalities of red light cameras are a hot-button topic for many drivers. Currently, 23 states have cities and local governments that use red light cameras as traffic control devices. However, seven states prohibit the use of red light cameras to issue citations to drivers. Texas signed a bill in 2019 that bans using red light cameras. However, they’re allowing cities and communities with existing contracts to continue. 

The legal status of red light cameras greatly depends on where you live. You’ll want to check the rules and regulations and anywhere you plan to drive. Many states that use red light cameras allow cities and local governments to determine whether the devices are worth adding to intersections to help control the traffic in their cities.

However, if the roads are state-owned, there may be substantially more red tape to work through.

Benefits of Red Light Cameras

There are several major reasons why cities and local governments might consider using red light cameras to monitor traffic. Let’s look at some benefits red light cameras can have for drivers. 

Generate Revenue

Red light cameras can generate tremendous revenue for local governments. Depending on the state, violations can range from $48 to $500. How cities and local governments spend the money varies. Most locations use the funds generated to pay for and maintain the red light camera infrastructures.

From there, some funds go to local policies departments, road maintenance, and many other possible funds.

Safer Intersections

Drivers running red lights can be extremely dangerous. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), there were 116,000 injuries and 928 fatalities in 2020 from accidents involving a driver running a red light. Red light cameras cause drivers to think twice about speeding through an intersection during a stale yellow light. As a result, there’s been a 21% decrease in deaths from drivers running red lights.

Disadvantages of Red Light Cameras

While red light cameras have some positive aspects, some disadvantages must also be considered. 

Potentially Increases Fender Benders

While red light cameras decrease the number of accidents resulting from drivers running red lights, they increase the number of fender benders. IIHS research shows that rear-end collisions increased by 15% in locations using red light cameras.

This is likely because drivers are overly cautious against speeding through stale yellow lights out of fear of receiving a citation. However, rear-end accidents are typically less severe and have fewer fatalities compared to accidents from running red lights.

Loss of Public Trust

Some officials have pulled back on red light programs due to the perceived loss of public trust. Many people see the cameras as a government’s attempt at a money grab. Government officials often withdraw programs that create a loss of trust out of fear of losing political support from constituents.

Some cities have combined red light cameras with shorter yellow light durations, which results in increased violations and generates more revenue. This doesn’t help those cities genuinely looking to increase the safety of those on the road and aren’t just looking for a way to generate money.

Invasion of Privacy

Some feel that red light cameras are an invasion of privacy. These individuals are more concerned about how the data from the cameras is stored and less about the pictures of license plates or drivers. Who can access this sensitive information is a major concern. Many cities and local governments utilize third parties to manage their red light cameras. How these third parties store information many consider to be very private is the biggest concern.

Data breaches are rather common these days. Should one of these third-party contractors experience a data breach, some very sensitive information could get into the hands of seedy individuals.

It’s Not the Most Effective Method

Some research has shown that more regulations and enforcement hurt drivers. In fact, a small Dutch town severely loosened driving regulations and forced drivers to use common sense. The results were that drivers drove safer, traffic flowed better, and traffic accidents plummeted.

The Autobahn is one example of a highway with little to no driving restrictions. Research indicates it’s safer and has fewer fatalities than many American roads. So maybe the most effective method is fewer rules and regulations.

Are Red Light Cameras Worth It?

While red light cameras have some positive benefits, they’re not always the best answer. However, it’s irrelevant if you live in a state that permits using red light cameras.

You’ll need to reach out to your local legislation and communicate your opinion about using red light cameras where you live. Ultimately, we want you and other drivers to be as safe as possible. However, red light cameras can create more problems than they solve in some places.

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