Eight years after red-light cameras were put up, Raleigh plans to take them down at the end of this month. Studies show that while the cameras have reduced right-angle collisions, they’ve increased rear-end and fatal collisions.
In a 4-3 vote Tuesday, City Council came short of the five votes needed to renew its contract with ACS Xerox for the SafeLight Program. Mayor Charles Meeker abstained from voting because his law firm represented ACS in the past on an unrelated matter. The cameras, found at 15 intersections throughout Raleigh, will be removed after the contract expires Sept. 30.
While some council members claim the primary purpose of the cameras was public safety, critics argue it’s just another source of revenue.
A 2005 study by North Carolina State University showed side crashes had decreased by 42 percent since the 12 cameras operating in Raleigh at the time had been installed. Meanwhile, rear-end crashes had increased by 7 percent. A study of Greensboro red-light cameras also showed an increase in rear-end collisions.
“It’s not news to any of us at the city level that the rear-end smaller kinds of collisions would increase from this kind of technology in place,” said City Manager Russell Allen in 2006.
Allen said the city installed the cameras to cut down on dangerous, high-speed side collisions.
However, a more recent study found that fatal collisions have increased at the intersections with cameras. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there were nine fatal accidents between 2004 and 2008 — after the cameras were in place — compared to three between 1992 and 1996.
The impact of red light cameras on safety is debated around the country. Some studies find them to make intersections safer and some find them to cause more accidents than they prevent. “But one thing is for sure,” said Fergus Hodgson, director of fiscal policy studies for the John Locke Foundation. “They generate revenue for local governments, and that appears to be the genuine reason why they promote them.”
Raleigh doesn’t receive any revenue for the $50 red-light tickets it issues, but the Wake County Public School System does.
Hodgson said the vast majority of red-light-camera tickets are issued for rolling right-hand turns. Drivers are more likely to get struck by lightning than to get in an accident by making a rolling right-hand turn, he said.
“That’s why everyone does it,” he said. “If it were so dangerous, people wouldn’t do it. There seems to be the assumption that people want to get in accidents. They don’t.”
If city council members really want to make intersections safer, Hodgson said, there are better ways of achieving that goal, such as extending yellow-light times. Research from the Texas Transportation Institute suggests that increasing yellow lights by only one second reduces collisions by 40 percent, Hodgson wrote in a recent opinion piece on the subject.
“Yet, a number of cities have been found guilty of deliberately shortening the yellow light so as to cause more red light runs and more tickets,” Hodgson said.
In addition to safety concerns, red-light cameras have “devious impacts on our privacy and our right to a trial, the presumption of innocence,” Hodgson said.
Councilman Bonner Gaylord expressed similar concerns at the city council meeting Tuesday.
“Tickets are issued based on the license plate,” Gaylord said. “How do we ensure it was the owner that was driving? What’s the process if the owner was not driving the car and was issued a ticket?”
City staff answered that the owner can contest the ticket and get it transferred into the driver’s name.
“To me this is against what our country’s justice system was founded on, which is innocence until proven guilty,” Gaylord said. “This seems to be guilty until proven innocent.”
Allen said the council could revisit the issue in the future, but for now, the cameras will be turned off and removed.
WRAL-TV reports that council members Mary Ann Baldwin, Nancy McFarlane, and Thomas Crowder said they would work to save the program, but aren’t sure they’ll be able to before the contract expires.
Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.