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July 7, 2011 Volume 32, No. 33

MU research finds red light cameras increase traffic safety and efficiency


Benefits outweigh potential for abuse

Many drivers suspect that red light cameras and other automated traffic monitoring systems are a way for city governments to generate revenue through increased ticketing for moving violations. But new research from the University of Missouri has found that the safety benefits of automated traffic systems far outweigh the potential for abuse.

Carlos Sun, an associate professor of civil engineering in the MU College of Engineering, said that while red light cameras are not a panacea for traffic problems, they are a very effective tool for safer and more efficient transportation.

“Just like any other tool, it should be used responsibly in the proper situation,” Sun said. “The decision to use automated traffic enforcement tools requires a balancing act, but we shouldn’t take away an effective tool just because of the potential for abuse.”

Sun, who recently earned his law degree, cited statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that indicate almost a third of all traffic fatalities are speed related, and that running red lights accounts for 883 fatalities and 165,000 injuries each year. Sun’s examination of numerous automated speed enforcement studies from around the world found the cameras to be effective at improving safety overall.

The City of Columbia has installed red light cameras at four locations. Fines for violations range from $1 to $500. Serious violations that involve accidents can be punished by up to three months’ imprisonment.

Sun also found evidence that the presence of cameras created a “spillover effect,” in that drivers respect red lights even where no cameras were present.

However, Sun did find room for improvement. Due to a lack of coordination regarding automated traffic enforcement laws throughout the legal system, Sun recommends that state legislators create laws regarding operation, privacy and jurisdiction. Sun believes that certain types of vendor contracts, in which a third party installs and operates the cameras, could create mistrust among citizens. Despite the potential for cameras to “generate revenue,” Sun believes the checks and balances among traffic engineers, traffic enforcement, city administration, legislators and citizens should ultimately keep abuse in check.

“There are many parties from separate branches of the government involved in the operation of an intersection,” Sun said. “If people wanted to create a scheme to make money, it would have to involve many people who all have a charge to do their duty well. The irony of red light camera enforcement is that if people obeyed the law, the revenue wouldn’t be generated.”

The article “Is Robocop a Cash Cow? Motivations for Automated Traffic Enforcement,” was published in May in the quarterly Journal of Transportation Law, Logistics and Policy. Troy Rule, a professor of law at MU, assisted Sun with the research.