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Red-Light Cameras Can Save Lives, Study Says

Critics contend traffic intersections should be made safer

FRIDAY, Nov. 1, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Those little cameras that take pictures of red-light runners may be lifesavers as well.

A new study estimates that injury rates from one of the deadliest kinds of crashes dropped by 68 percent after the cameras were installed at intersections in a California city.

However, the statistics haven't quieted critics of the cameras, who claim the study relies largely on guesswork. They say the best way to make intersections safer is to design them better, rather than find new ways to ticket motorists.

The cameras "are not being installed because they increase safety. They're being installed because they bring in more revenue," says Eric Skrum, spokesman for the National Motorists Association, a leading opponent of so-called "photo enforcement."

An estimated 70 U.S. cities have installed cameras that take photos of intersections and let officials capture the license plate numbers of red-light runners. Violators get tickets in the mail.

The cameras are controversial, and critics have accused the companies that operate them of having a conflict of interest because some have gotten commissions for each recorded violation. Dueling studies from the United States and Australia have both supported and knocked the value of the cameras.

In the newly published research, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety examined statistics before and after red-light cameras were installed at 11 of 125 intersections in the southern California city of Oxnard in 1997. The researchers used three other California cities without photo enforcement at the time for comparison: Santa Barbara, San Bernardino and Bakersfield.

The findings appear in the November 2002 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

The total number of crashes at all intersections with traffic signals in Oxnard -- even those without the cameras -- dropped by 5.4 percent in the time period studied, while the number of injury-inducing crashes fell by 20 percent.

Using statistical analysis, the researchers estimated that the number of so-called "T-bone" crashes fell by 32 percent in the city, and the number of injuries from those crashes dropped by 68 percent.

In a T-bone crash involving a red-light runner, the driver entering the intersection illegally usually hits the side a moving car that has a green light.

"They are among the most dangerous crashes because the side impact puts the occupants of the struck vehicle at a high risk of injury or death," says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Cars provide less protection for occupants hit on the side of the vehicle, he says. An estimated 800 people in the United States die each year from crashes caused by red-light runners, and 200,000 people are injured.

The researchers suggest the red-light cameras increased traffic safety throughout Oxnard, not just at the small number of intersections where they were used.

"What we find with red light cameras is if motorists know that there is a higher likelihood they'll be caught, they're less likely to run a red light," Rader says. "The goal is to deter the offense and improve safety."

However, critics have pointed out that the study didn't specifically look at the intersections with cameras, nor did it definitively link red-light cameras to the decline in accidents. In fact, of the four cities studied, the total number of crashes declined the most in Santa Barbara, which didn't have photo enforcement.

Critics also question the Insurance Institute's involvement in the study. The institute is funded by insurance companies that could raise the rates of drivers with traffic tickets from running red lights.

Instead of raking in money from traffic tickets, cities should examine intersections and see if they can increase the time for yellow lights, allowing more cars to enter intersections safely, says Skrum, of the National Motorists Association, which claims 6,500 members.

"If you change the engineering of the intersection and find what's causing people to violate the red light, you don't need the cameras," he says.

What To Do

Read more about the benefits of photo enforcement at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. For an opposing point of view, check with the National Motorists Association.

SOURCES: Russ Rader, spokesman, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Arlington, Va.; Eric Skrum, spokesman, National Motorists Association, Waunakee, Wisc.; November 2002 American Journal of Public Health
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