Do red light cameras make drivers safer?

(WMC Action News 5)
Updated: Nov. 6, 2018 at 4:06 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Red light cameras and the tickets they generate make millions of dollars for the city of Memphis.

But do they make the streets or drivers any safer?

We dug deep into a decade of data from Memphis Police Department for the answers.

When the Memphis City Council approved red light cameras in 2009, they sold them to the community as a great way to reduce accidents and improve safety.

Now, almost a decade later, even police are surprised by what the data reveals. The Memphis network of red light cameras is designed to prevent crashes.

"We're in favor of anything that increases public safety,” said MPD Deputy Chief Don Crowe. “Anything that makes it safer for our citizens to drive on the streets."

Memphis police welcomed red light cameras, but drivers were less enthusiastic

The red light cameras do make money through fines and ticket revenue – they brought in $2.7 million in 2014, $3.9 million in 2015, and $4 million in 2016.

"We know that in the year 2017, the Memphis Police Department took over 30,000 crash reports,” Chief Crowe said.

Chief Crowe said officers handle about 100 car accidents a day, a number that’s been pretty steady since red light cameras were installed in 2009.

He shared comparison data from intersections that have red light cameras to see if there's been any improvement in safety.

  • Covington Pike and Stage saw 88 crashes in 2015 and 60 so far in 2018.  
  • Walnut Grove and Farm Road had 105 accidents in 2015 and 79 in 2018.  
  • Winchester and Kirby saw 126 crashes in 2015 and 120 and counting so far this year. 

"It says that people aren’t paying enough attention, because we expected a much more dramatic decrease,” Chief Crowe said.

Installing red light cameras also created a new problem.

"Maybe the red light cameras are causing people to stop harder and causing more rear end collisions instead of intersection collisions,” Chief Crowe said.

A recently released study from Case Western Reserve University backs that up.

"Drivers tend to brake harder and more abruptly," it found "increasing fender benders."

Even the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which supports the use of red light cameras says:

“They can increase rear-end crashes. However, such crashes tend to be much less severe, so the net effect is positive.”

Finally, the National Motorists Association concluded:

“There is no independent verification that photo enforcement devices improve safety, reduce overall accidents or improve traffic flow.”

"That's a good argument against it,” said law professor Steve Mulroy.

In 2009, 440 U.S. cities, including Memphis, used red light cameras. By 2012, the number was 533, and today it’s down to 430.

Major cities and entire states are saying “no” to the controversial cameras. Cleveland, Ohio and Houston, Texas got rid of them. Arkansas and Mississippi both banned red light cameras.

Mulroy said the skepticism surrounding red light cameras is well-deserved if these electronic eyes in the sky aren’t making local roads or Memphis drivers any safer.

"If it doesn’t, in fact, improve traffic safety, then it ends up just being a revenue stream,” Mulroy said.

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