Traffic cameras prove their value to life and limb

The News TribuneDecember 3, 2013 

A red light camera monitors the busy intersection of Pacific Avenue and South 72nd Street in Tacoma.


Here’s a question for opponents of red-light cameras: Would you rather be on the receiving end of a T-bone crash or a minor fender bender?

Granted, that’s not exactly a fair question. But it’s the reality reflected in statistics: Not only do the number of accidents decrease at intersections after red-light cameras are installed, the type of accident changes.

The number of relatively minor rear-end fender benders sometimes may increase – especially in the period just after a camera is installed and drivers brake suddenly to avoid running the light. But the T-bone crashes that are most likely to kill someone are significantly reduced.

As The News Tribune’s Nicole Gaddie found when she studied Tacoma’s experience at seven intersections from 2003 to 2012, the trend toward fewer and less severe accidents shows the city’s camera program is working as intended: to improve safety.

The intersection at South 84th and Hosmer streets is the biggest success story, with a 55 percent decrease in collisions. Close behind is South 72nd Street and Pacific Avenue, with a 40 percent decrease. A Tacoma police spokesman noted that when they do respond to an accident at the monitored intersections now, it’s usually a fender bender, not a serious crash.

As critics like to point out, the camera program does generate revenue through the $124 tickets. Most of it goes to the company that installed and operates the cameras.

What’s left over goes to the city and is spent making traffic safety improvements and paying the salaries of traffic enforcement officers. Those are worthy uses for the revenue.

As for being a “cash cow,” critics should understand that the more successful the program is in decreasing red-light running, the less money comes into city coffers because the revenue to the camera company is a fixed cost. And courts have ruled that the cameras are not an invasion of privacy, as there is no expectation of privacy when driving on a public street.

Tacoma’s not the only city that has reaped the safety benefits of red-light cameras. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which analyzed statistics in 99 U.S. cities between 2004 and 2008, cameras reduced fatal crashes by 24 percent. Two-thirds of those who were killed at non-monitored intersections were pedestrians, bicyclists, occupants of other vehicles and passengers in the vehicle driven by the red-light runner.

Hundreds of lives could be saved each year if more cities made use of cameras to enforce the law at intersections with a history of red-light running. It’s very likely some people in Tacoma are alive today because of the city’s camera program.

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