Red Light Camera Use Declines After Public Outrage

May 24, 2016

"Red Light Robin Hood" Stephen Ruth of Long Island shows off one of the tools he uses to vandalize red light cameras.
Credit Charles Lane / AP

Red light cameras are designed to catch drivers who run red lights. Studies have shown they make intersections less deadly. So why over the last several years have the number of communities using red light cameras fallen?

When industry experts talk about the reasons why there are fewer red light cameras in the country, people like Stephen Ruth come up.

Ruth calls himself the “Red Light Robin Hood.” He vandalizes red light cameras and then posts videos of it online. “These are actually for vacuuming your pool,” Ruth said, showing one of the tools he uses. “My painter's extension rod was actually put into evidence. I walked up to the camera. I told whoever was listening - I said, you know, this camera has been abusing people, and it was the government taking advantage. And it's going to stop.”

How many cameras Ruth has damaged is unclear, but it's more than a few.

“I'm going to use my drill over here, and I was going to open up the boxes and I was going to use my wire cutter. And I was going to cut all the internet access to these cameras.”

Police in Suffolk County, Long Island, have arrested Ruth twice, and he faces years in jail if convicted. Ruth says his civil disobedience is saving lives, but safety advocates say Ruth is making the roads more dangerous.

Wen Hu is a researcher and transportation engineer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit funded by insurance companies. Hu thinks Ruth is “just crazy.” Hu conducted one of the more recognized studies for red light cameras. From 2004 to 2008, she compared cities with red light cameras to cities without.

“The red light cameras reduced the fatal red-light running crash rate by 24 percent and the rate of all types of fatal crashes at signalized intersections by 17 percent.”

So not only did fewer people die because someone blew a red light, but all over the city, people just drove safer – when it comes to fatal crashes, that is – not all crashes. Red light cameras tend to reduce the deadly T-bone crashes where one car broadsides the other, but a number of studies indicate the cameras increase the more minor rear-end crashes.

Alec Slatky, with AAA in New York, says,” Let's say someone gets a red light camera ticket. Next time they go to that intersection, they're going to get spooked. And they say, I'm not getting another ticket. No way, no how. I'm going to slam on my brakes as soon as the light turns yellow.”

That's not safe behavior either. Slatky says the net effect is positive, so long as local governments target intersections that have a problem with T-bone crashes. But all too often, Slatky says, local governments target intersections where there are a lot of violations, not a lot of crashes.

“And then when the public believes that this is about revenue, they get mad. And some small portion of those angry people are going to rise up and say, you know, tear down these cameras.”

And this has been happening all over the country. Following the financial crisis when local governments were strapped for cash, there were some 530 red light camera programs in the U.S. Now 20 percent of those communities have dropped out. Some programs have been ruled unconstitutional, while others have been implicated in sordid bribery scandals. But Slatky and Hu agree that the main reasons for the drop in programs are falling revenue and folks like Stephen Ruth, inciting the community.

Ruth said, “I think that they are totally appalled by what went on. I think that it's going to stop, and I'm willing to go to jail to make it stop.”

On the other side, camera advocates are planning an education campaign to teach local governments that red light camera programs should be about safety, not money.

Reporter Q&A with Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser

Charles, you teamed up with AAA to analyze red light camera data. What is the data showing so far about Suffolk County’s red light camera program?

Experts say the data and transparency of Suffolk’s red light camera program is so poor that making a judgment about how the program is doing is nearly impossible. When we try to step back and look at Suffolk’s program overall, it’s not reducing injuries nearly as much as overall accident trends in the state have gone down without red light cameras.

Critics say the Red Light Cameras are all about making the county money. The county estimates some $16 million this year. As you say, at this point, it’s hard to make a judgment about the impact of the Red Light Cameras (RLCs) but what do we know?

What all the studies say is the RLCs are good at discouraging deadly T-bone crashes. And Suffolk’s data says T-bone were reduced by 30%, which is great. But Suffolk is putting the cameras at intersections that average only one or two T-bones a year which doesn’t seem like a lot.

Also, if you look at Suffolk’s most lucrative intersections, the red light cameras ringing in the most violations. Those intersections have increased crashes and injuries significantly. Meanwhile, the intersections where Suffolk has taken the cameras out, those are the ones that had very few violations, and some of them were working really well. So why take them out? We don’t know because the entire process of site selection is secretive and lead by the red light camera contractor.

There are potential long-term safety benefits here, but it sounds like the county’s struggle to prove that, is only fueling momentum behind people who want the cameras gone.

Yeah, right now lawmakers are considering ending the red light camera program. That’s unlikely to gain traction, but the potential exists that community outrage will end what could be a public good.

When you talk to experts, they say two things again and again. Red light cameras should not be about raising money. And two, transparency is really, really important.