Do Red Light Cameras Actually Reduce Car Accidents?

red light camera at an intersection

After a slowdown in red light camera installations across the state, Tennessee may finally decide to declare the program a total loss. State legislators are introducing a bill in 2020 that would effectively ban their use.

Opponents of red-light cameras praise the move, saying the devices do little more than generate revenue for local governments and contractors. What these cameras do not do, they argue, is make intersections safer.

There is no doubt that driving can be dangerous, especially when people make reckless maneuvers like running red lights. According to data from the TN Department of Safety & Homeland Security, 208,605 crashes happened across the state in 2018, leading to 48,701 injuries and 999 fatalities.

Some of the worst of these accidents happen at intersections, where drivers often refuse to yield or obey traffic signals. U.S. road deaths related to drivers running red lights set records in 2017, according to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. A pamphlet from the U.S. DOT cautions that crashes from running red lights tend to cause more injuries than any other crash. Side impacts caused in these crashes are especially deadly, even at speeds as low as 30 mph.

Yet, in their crusade to prevent red light accidents, have municipalities in Tennessee actually made a positive difference by installing red-light cameras? As a firm that frequently provides local crash victims with a Nashville car accident lawyer to represent their case, we felt it was our duty to find out.

Why Tennessee Might Ban Red Light Cameras

Red light camera use peaked in 2012, according to data from the IIHS. The first such camera was installed in New York City in 1992. Adoptions by other communities were slow until 2004. At that time, less than 100 municipalities had them installed, but within five years that number would increase almost five-fold.

Since 2012, more municipalities have removed red light cameras than added them. Why?

The biggest reason is a frequent culprit in local government decisions: money. The cameras are expensive to install, and operating them depends on pricey contracts to private companies. A report on speed cameras found that the Bluff City, Tennessee paid half of each $50 ticket to American Traffic Solutions (ATS), an Arizona-based company that operates over 3,200 cameras in multiple states. In a similar arrangement, Union City, TN pays 55% of ticket proceeds to a vendor named Redflex.

Despite hefty costs, the cameras still generate significant revenue. Memphis’ city budget discloses that $3.8 million in revenues came from red-light cameras in the 2018 fiscal year alone.

Nevertheless, the cameras are a point of contention for many citizens and legislators. One state representative famously burned his ticket generated by a red light camera and posted a video of it to social media. (Incidentally, the rep has a history of speed violations from both cops and cameras.)

Tennessee recently decided to make it illegal to operate speed cameras once contracts with vendors ran out. Lawmakers intend to use a similar move to phase out red light cameras. The state would have to reimburse municipalities for related revenue losses for a full year, but with a projected budget surplus, lawmakers think 2020 might be the perfect year to get the ban passed.

If Tennessee passes the ban, they’d be in good company. Texas banned their red-light cameras just this past summer.

Opponents’ reasons for getting rid of red-light cameras include:

  1. They’re expensive to own and maintain;
  2. They’re prone to errors, like capturing license plates from vehicles next to the actual perpetrator;
  3. They don’t account for context, like whether it was safer to not stop in the middle of an intersection;
  4. They privatize law enforcement and remove the agency of police officer decision-making;
  5. They tend to target high-volume traffic areas rather than areas with dangerous crashes;
  6. They are unenforceable compared to officer-written citations (half of Mephis’ tickets remain unpaid); and
  7. They may actually cause more accidents than they prevent

That last point is a doozy — one worth investigating.

Can Red Light Cameras Make Traffic Less Safe?

Vendors like ATS can cite studies that suggest red light cameras reduce accidents and fatalities. The logic seems impeccable on its surface, but opponents brought data of their own.

A study published in research magazine The Conversation in 2018 claims that there is actually zero evidence that red light cameras have a significant positive benefit to public safety. The study found that, while the cameras reduce the numbers of drivers who run red lights, they, “can have contradictory effects on traffic safety.”

Because drivers slam on their brakes to avoid getting a ticket, the cameras may cause an increase in rear-end accidents. When reviewing data specific to Houston, researchers found that “angle accidents” like T-bone crashes decreased by a small percentage after red light cameras were installed while accidents as a whole rose — a net negative impact on safety.

Anecdotal stories will confirm this perspective. A New York Times story on Texas’ ban starts with a tale of a driver in a vehicle loaded down with food, beverages, and papers. Rather than slamming on the brakes and causing everything in his car to turn into a jumble, the driver opted to proceed through a yellow light that soon turned red, generating a $75 ticket in the process.

“It does not give you any warning,” the driver complained to The Times. “All of a sudden, two seconds to brake in a whole intersection. Go over the white line, you will still get that ticket.”

Injury Victims Can Struggle to Get Compensation After a Red Light Accident

Whether or not red light cameras encourage or discourage traffic accidents in Nashville, crashes continue to occur. Drivers, passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians all risk getting injured — or possibly even killed — on any given drive.

Those hurt may be left with significant medical bills and other costs. To get the compensation they need, they may have to rely on a Nashville car accident attorney who can investigate their case, negotiate with insurers, and fight for every penny of their losses.

As Nashville car accident lawyers ourselves, we have a vested interest in seeing the number of hurt Tennesseans go down. We applaud any efforts law enforcement and other agencies take to reduce harmful accidents. However, when it comes to the positive effects of red light cameras, let’s just say: the jury’s still out.

Have you been hurt in an accident in Nashville? Schedule a free appointment to speak to an experienced Nashville car accident lawyer who can review your case when you call (615) 590-3106 or contact us online.

About the Author

Michael Steinger
Michael Steinger

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MICHAEL S. STEINGER, founding partner of Steinger, Greene & Feiner, believes in representing real people, not big businesses. Since the firm’s creation in 1997, Steinger, Greene & Feiner has never represented an insurance company or large corporation, and he vows to keep this promise. Over the course of his career, Michael has handled thousands of Florida accident cases, recovering millions of dollars for his clients and earning him membership into the Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum. Staying up-to-date on the ever-evolving laws protecting injury victims and their families, Michael is an active member of the American Bar Association, the Palm Beach, and St. Lucie Bar Associations, and sits on the Auto Insurance Committee of the Florida Justice Association.