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Red Light Camera Use Declines After Public Outrage

May 23, 2016
Originally published on May 26, 2016 1:14 pm
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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? From member station WSHU, Charles Lane reports on what's being done to reverse the trend.

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

STEPHEN RUTH: These are actually for vacuuming your pool. My painter's extension rod was actually put into evidence.

LANE: Ruth calls himself the red light Robin Hood. He vandalizes red light cameras and then posts videos of it online.

RUTH: 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.

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

RUTH: 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.

LANE: 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: I think he's just crazy.

LANE: Wen Hu is a researcher and transportation engineer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit funded by insurance companies. 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.

HU: 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.

LANE: So not only did fewer people die because someone blew a red light, but all over the city, people just drove safer. But notice that Hu said fatal crashes, not all crashes. That's because 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 Slakey is with AAA in New York.

ALEC SLAKEY: 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.

LANE: And that's not safe behavior either. Slakey 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, Slakey says, local governments target intersections where there are a lot of violations, not a lot of crashes.

SLAKEY: 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.

LANE: 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 Slakey and Hu agree that the main reasons for the drop in programs are falling revenue and folks like Stephen Ruth, inciting the community.

RUTH: 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.

LANE: 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. For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.