Red light camera studies differ on safety results

Ari Ashe,

ARLINGTON, Va. – A recent Insurance Institute for Highway Study found red light cameras in Arlington substantially reduced the amount of red light runners and generally make streets safer.

However, critics point to some other numbers in the same study to show an underbelly to the red light camera programs across our region and the United States.

According to the same report, 74 percent of drivers running a red light were caught between 0 and 1.5 seconds after the light turned red during an initial phase when drivers received warnings instead of tickets.

One year later, 54 percent were caught in the first second and 83 percent in the first 1.5 seconds.

“The big concern is whether you’re catching aggressive red light runners or inadvertent red light runners,” says John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s manager of public and government affairs.

“At 0.5 seconds you may be catching a lot of inadvertent and unintentional red light runners who couldn’t clear the intersection in time.”

Under Virginia law, drivers get a 0.5 second grace period after a red light before the camera starts ticketing violators.

But according to a 2004 Texas Transportation Institute study, dangerous right-angle crashes, also known as T-bone or side collisions, do not happen as quickly.

“With one exception, all of the right-angle crashes occurred after five seconds or more of red. Closer inspection of the one exception revealed that it occurred very late at night with both vehicles violating their respective red indications at about the same time,” according to the report.

However, the same study did find that left turn crashes into oncoming traffic almost always happen in the first five seconds after a light turns red.

“It shouldn’t be done as a ‘gotcha game’. My question is: Are you looking at the science and engineering to determine if that’s the appropriate amount of time, or are you letting revenue and the heavy hand of the contractor determine the appropriate interval?” says Townsend.

Maryland and the District of Columbia do not have any grace periods and the camera snaps as soon as the light turns red.

When asked why the District of Columbia does not have the same grace period like Virginia, police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump would only say, “Our yellow lights have always been one second longer than ITE (Institute for Transportation Engineers) recommendations, since prior to the inception of our program in 1999.”

One Maryland police officer tells WTOP that he doesn’t agree with grace periods because it would give people an incentive to run lights.

Critics also say that many tickets in the first second after a red light are rolling right turns, or someone making a legal turn on red, but not coming to a full, complete stop before doing so.

According to a 2011 study from Safer Streets LA, between 80 and 90 percent of all tickets in Los Angeles were rolling right turns. Although the odds of a crash from such a turn are 1 in 345,345 – that’s less likely than being struck by lightning.

The National Lightning Safety Institute says the chances of being struck are 1 in 280,000.

Another study in Longview, Wash., found 89 percent of red light tickets between February and August 2011 were for rolling right turns.

Some states, like Florida, have laws that now say that tickets, “may not be issued for failure to stop at a red light if the driver is making a right-hand turn in a careful and prudent manner at an intersection where right hand turns are permissible.”

But under D.C. law, “right turns (can only occur) after coming to a full stop and yielding right-of-way to pedestrians and other vehicles.”

Laws in Virginia and Maryland are similar.

Follow @AriAsheWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2013 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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