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Cameras Cut Red-Light Crashes

Big drop seen where they catch violators

WEDNESDAY, May 2 (HealthScout) -- Putting cameras at intersections to catch drivers who run red lights lowers the number of car crashes and injuries, the first scientific study of camera enforcement in the United States reveals.

While only 40 cities in the United States use cameras to enforce traffic laws, the study of camera enforcement in Oxnard, Calif., by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that installing red light cameras may reduce the number of car crash injuries by as much as 29 percent. In addition, the cameras, which photograph vehicles as they run red lights and then ticket the violators by mail, lowered broadside collisions -- the crash type most associated with running a red light -- by 32 percent. Injuries from the same kind of collision also dropped 68 percent.

"From a health injury prevention perspective, it is very rare that communities can do anything on this scale to reduce injuries with so little effort," comments Richard Retting, senior transportation engineer at the institute, which is located in Arlington, Va. "This is a very low-cost, easy-to-implement program that requires a commitment from political leaders and the law enforcement community to come together to implement."

Oxnard, a community of 170,358 located on the California coast between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, installed cameras at 11 of the city's 125 intersections in 1997. Oxnard residents favored red light camera enforcement at city intersections even before the positive results on car crashes were reported, the study shows. Once the cameras were installed, community support increased.

Running red lights and other traffic control devices is the leading cause of crashes in urban areas, representing 22 percent of the total number of crashes, according to the safety institute. The economic impact of these car accidents is estimated at $7 billion each year in medical costs, time off work, insurance rate increases and property damage. Between 1992 and 1998, almost 6,000 people died nationwide in these kinds of accidents -- more than half of them pedestrians and occupants of other vehicles hit by red light runners. During the same period, about 1.5 million people were injured in such car accidents.

Retting says the camera program is cost-effective "clearly because of the substantial reduction in injury-producing accidents … And since the violators fund the program through payment of fines, it's really no cost to taxpayers. In fact, safety can be improved at the expense of the very people who run red lights."

Not in place in most states

"Our accidents, caused by running red lights, decreased by 30 percent and to me that's more significant than the revenue," says Senior Officer Scott Swenson, head of the Oxnard Police Department's traffic unit. "The revenue is obviously going to vary by jurisdiction depending on the amount of traffic. In some jurisdictions in California there are a whole bunch of citations because of the amount of traffic."

Each of the camera units costs about $84,000, Swenson says. "But there are some requirements necessary before you can install them. There needs to be a state law that allows this kind of enforcement tool, and the department has got to come up with the funding."

Only nine states -- California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Oregon and Virginia -- as well as the District of Columbia allow cameras to be used for traffic enforcement. "There is some resistance to the idea," Retting says. "There are states like Texas and Florida, where politicians have failed to let these laws be enacted."

More publicity and more familiarity with the technology is needed, Retting says. "We have to view this as an evolution. As the technology becomes more familiar to all of us, the political process will give more heed to the need for the cameras."

"The technology is unfamiliar to some who question the place of cameras in traffic enforcement," Retting adds. "It may ultimately come down to familiarity."

What To Do

For more information on red light cameras, visit the Oxnard Police Department or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

And don't forget these HealthScout stories on car accidents.

SOURCES: Interviews with Richard Retting, senior transportation engineer, National Institute for Highway Safety, Arlington, Va.; and Scott Swenson, senior officer, Oxnard Police Department Traffic Unit. Oxnard, Calif.; Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Status Report
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