Debating Los Angeles’ Traffic Light Cameras

Los Angeles is considering pulling the plug on their red light cameras (RLC’s). Freakonomics blogger Eric A. Morris weighs in:

Do we need RLCs? First off, yes, there is a problem. Intersections are dangerous places. The Federal Highway Administration has estimated that red-light running caused 676 deaths and 113,000 injuries in 2009 alone. Even more troubling, nearly two-thirds of the fatalities were innocent drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

Moreover, there is an enforcement issue. Catching a driver who runs a red light often means the cop must himself run the red to chase the law-breaker from behind, with considerable danger to both cop and motorists on the cross street.

Next question: do RLCs work? The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety has estimated that RLCs in the 14 largest cities saved 159 lives between 2004 and 2008. In a recent study comparing cities that added RLCs between 1996 and 2004 with those that did not, the Institute found the RLC cities had crash rates that were 35 percent lower in the mid-2000s than in the early 90s. Cities that did not install RLCs also saw a drop, but of only 14 percent.

Not only are lives saved at RLC intersections, but there may be a “spillover” effect where drivers are more cautious at other intersections as well. The bottom line is that the Institute calculates that if all 99 cities with populations over 200,000 had installed RLCs, between 2004 and 2008 a total of 815 deaths could have been avoided.

Photo credit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times

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