Survey: Most big-city drivers favor red-light cameras

John Egan

Two-thirds of drivers in 14 big U.S. cities with established red-light camera programs give the green light to their use, according to a new survey from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

These cameras, installed at busy intersections, take photos of cars that run red lights. Red-light offenders then are sent tickets by mail. Currently, more than 500 U.S. cities have red-light cameras.

Institute: Red-light ameras prevent crashes

In the survey, the amount of support for red-light cameras ranged from 78 percent in Washington, D.C., to 48 percent in Long Beach, Calif. Overall support was split evenly between men and women.

Drivers age 51 to 60 made up 30 percent of the supporters, followed by drivers 61 to 70 (27 percent), 41 to 50 (19 percent), 41 to 50 (19 percent), 31 to 40 (11 percent), 71 and older (7 percent) and 19 to 30 (5 percent). Ages for 1 percent of the drivers weren't identified.

In a survey of drivers in 14 big cities, motorists in Washington, D.C., were the most supportive of red-light cameras.
"Most drivers don't buy the argument that it's somehow wrong to enforce the law just because you're using a camera to do it," says Anne McCartt, the nonprofit institute's senior vice president for research. "They understand that this technology is preventing crashes in their cities."

More than 3,100 drivers in the 14 cities were interviewed between Feb. 19 and March 29. Eighty-two percent of the drivers surveyed think running red lights is a serious threat to their own safety, and 93 percent think running red lights is "unacceptable."

Pros of red-light cameras

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says the survey confirms that opponents of red-light cameras -- "while vocal and often influential" -- are in the minority.

Findings of the survey suggest "that most drivers in cities with longstanding camera programs realize their safety benefits, even though some opposition and misperceptions remain," the institute says.

Red-light cameras supplement traditional ways of catching speeders and others traffic violators at intersections, the highway safety institute says. Motorists are more likely to comply with traffic laws when they perceive a high likelihood of being nabbed for a violation, the institute says. However, the group says, many law enforcement agencies don't have enough manpower to conduct adequate patrols.

According to the institute, its own research demonstrates that red-light cameras have cut the rate of fatal red-light crashes by 24 percent in the 14 cities with established camera programs.

The institute notes that opponents of red-light cameras "continue to claim that the programs violate privacy and are cooked up by cities merely to generate revenue."

Cons of red-light cameras

Critics still aren't buying the institute's arguments.

The National Motorists Association, an advocacy group for drivers, offers a 10-point list of objections to red-light cameras. At the top of the list: Red-light cameras do not lead to better traffic safety. The association says there's no "independent verification" that red-light cameras reduce traffic accidents or improve traffic flow.

"Believing the claims of companies that sell photo enforcement equipment or municipalities that use this equipment is like believing any commercial produced by a company that is trying to sell you something," the National Motorists Association says.

Cameras 'make mistakes,' some motorists say

In the institute's survey, about one-fourth of people in the 14 cities oppose red-light cameras. Among their reasons:

• The cameras can make mistakes (26 percent of all drivers surveyed). The motorists association says that "just because a camera unit was operating properly when it was set up does not mean it was operating properly when the picture was taken of any given vehicle."

• The cameras are about money, not safety (26 percent). "When red-light cameras are used to make money for local governments, these governments are unlikely to jeopardize this income source," the motorists association says.

• The cameras actually make roads less safe (19 percent). "Even in instances where cameras were shown to decrease certain types of accidents, they increased other accidents," according to the motorists association.

• The cameras are an invasion of privacy (17 percent). The American Civil Liberties Union has said that Americans "should shudder at the thought of a future filled with computerized cameras monitoring and evaluating their behavior everywhere they go."

D.C. leads the list of supporters

Here are the 14 cities surveyed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and their level of support for red-light cameras:

1. Washington, D.C. -- 78 percent. 2. Chandler, Ariz. -- 75 percent. 3. Phoenix -- 74 percent. 4. Sacramento, Calif. -- 71 percent. 5. Bakersfield, Calif. -- 68 percent. 6. Portland, Ore. -- 68 percent. 7. Baltimore -- 67 percent. 8. Garland, Texas -- 66 percent. 9. Chicago -- 65 percent. 10. San Diego -- 64 percent. 11. Raleigh, N.C. -- 62 percent. 12. Toledo, Ohio -- 58 percent. 13. Santa Ana, Calif. -- 54 percent. 14. Long Beach, Calif. -- 48 percent.

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