Red light cameras have been deployed around the country to great effect, reducing crashes dramatically in New York City and Washington, DC. Given these successes in the East, it was natural for San Rafael to give them a try. But police said they were ineffective at reducing crashes, and that they cost more than they took in, so the city recently ditched them. Given state law in California, the results in San Rafael start to make some sense.
Best practice: red light cameras
Traditional traffic enforcement is meant to be punitive. Police can’t be everywhere, so, to change behavior, any violation caught needs to be punishing and painful. As a result, California has extremely high fines for red light violations: a minimum of $489.
When a city switches on red light cameras, they generally try to limit them to key intersections. This ensures that most dangerous violations are caught, even if other violations at less important or less dangerous intersections are missed.
Psychologically, this is not effective, as it does not create a culture where traffic violations are simply not done. Serial red light runners will continue to do so wherever they like, just avoiding the two or three intersections where they know they’ll get caught. Research finds dummy cameras, which flash a light but take no picture, are effective at stopping red light running, a strong indicator that running lights is often a conscious decision.
To change behavior, one must apply a little force consistently, not a lot of force inconsistently. Red light cameras, when seen in this light, don’t do a very good job. They should be ubiquitous and cheap, with a relatively low-dollar ticket – maybe just $150 – that hits a driver for every red light run.
California’s red light ticket minimum means ubiquitous tickets would add up rapidly. As it is, just one $489 ticket can be half of someone’s take-home pay for the month, or worse. It’s unjust to use such a painful instrument to change behavior city-wide, even if the end of crashes prevented is noble.
As well, the high ticket fine opens cities up to criticism that traffic enforcement is simply a money grab, a politically toxic accusation that could kill any such comprehensive enforcement.
San Rafael’s experience
Without the flexibility to catch red light runners every time, San Rafael’s experience with cameras was a poor one. Though a 2012 grand jury report found crashes declined by 12 percent up to that point, a police spokeswoman told me crashes increased by 1 fatality.
The managing company, Redflex, was also a political headache. The IJ's Megan Hansen reported, “Redflex has been losing contracts ever since it came under fire early last year when news broke the company was being investigated for corrupt business practices, including bribery and secret meetings.” Red light cameras are never politically easy, and paying a potentially corrupt company hundreds of thousands in taxpayer funds and ticket fines just makes things worse.
Though traffic enforcement is vital to creating a safe environment for all road users, San Rafael should focus its efforts on street design rather than automated enforcement. Though the impulse among some may be to keep fines high, road safety advocates should advocate for laws that do the most good, not just the ones that feel right.
To that end, California should create a two-tier system of ticket enforcement: one with dramatically lower fines for comprehensive automated enforcement schemes, and one with the existing fines for the spot-checking enforcement schemes cities rely on today.
Though it’s unfortunate San Rafael did not get a good deal for its cameras, removing them was ultimately a response to bad state law. Perhaps one day the city will be able to install a system that changes how we think about traffic laws, but until then it’s probably best to just go without cameras altogether.