Three of the four members of my family have gotten tickets for running just-turned-red lights at intersections with red-light cameras. In each case, the cameras were accurate. In each case, we were pissed when the ticket arrived in the mail. In each case, though, we paid the fine without a challenge. And, most important, each of us altered his or her dangerous conduct after getting the ticket. I came to love the red-light cameras. They struck me as no real invasion of privacy -- a picture of our car (but not its driver) as it goes through an intersection is hardly private. It seemed logical to me that a camera's presence would encourage safer driving. And, so, I didn't care whether the real motivation of the District of Columbia or Montgomery County, Maryland -- the two jurisdcitions that caught us -- was to raise a little revenue for their cash-starved coffers. (If the devices actually encouraged drivers to stop running red lights, they wouldn't raise any revenue, unless the devices were faulty.)
Now, we have some hard data. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that after the District of Columbia installed red-light cameras at its deadliest intersections, traffic fatalities went down at those intersections -- way down. And not just in D.C. As the Post explained yesterday in a follow-up editorial:
A definitive new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that in 14 big cities where the cameras were in use, including the District, the rate of fatalities stemming from red-light crashes fell three times faster than in 48 cities that did not install the cameras. What's more, the institute, a nonprofit group funded by the insurance industry, found that the cameras saved 159 lives in the 14 cities over five years starting in 2004. If the cameras had been in use in every big American city, 815 lives would have been saved during the same span, the researchers concluded.
Perhaps this study isn't perfect. There had been earlier stories suggesting that red-light cameras don't change behavior. Maybe more research is needed. But, for now, it sounds like a regulatory success story.