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Do Red Light Cameras Cut Crashes? Citrus Heights Doesn’t Know

For a decade or more, cities across the U.S. and worldwide have been using or considering using red light cameras to enforce their traffic laws. The cameras pose difficult questions about drivers’ rights, but the industry has successfully warded off many challenges by touting their effectiveness at reducing traffic accidents at intersections

The trouble is, cities may be at least partially motivated by ticket revenue, which red light cameras are virtually certain to increase. If they are motivated by that revenue, they may not be inclined to seriously question the safety claims made by the red light camera industry. That may be part of what happened in the case of Citrus Heights, which was harshly criticized by a Sacramento County grand jury for the way it runs its program.

The case involving Citrus Heights isn’t a personal injury claim but an investigation into whether that city was following state law and federal guidelines for red light camera programs. The grand jury not only found the city “chronically and systematically ignores its own policies for oversight, testing, monitoring, maintenance, and record keeping” but also “fails to routinely collect and analyze the necessary data which would enable it to gauge the effectiveness of the program on an ongoing basis.”

It’s important to understand whether Citrus Heights officials mismanaged the program, especially since one red light camera manufacturer has admitted bribing officials in California and nine other states. In terms of traffic safety, however, what we’d really like to know is whether the cameras actually serve to reduce car accidents at intersections.

Citrus Heights didn’t follow the manufacturer’s instructions or state law when setting the length of yellow lights but set the time too short. This may actually have made intersections more dangerous. Unfortunately, we don’t know for sure.

Three times during the proceedings, the grand jury asked Citrus Heights officials to produce evidence that the cameras save lives. Twice it was given numbers that clearly didn’t add up. When it asked a third time, the city was forced to admit they had no evidence to prove the cameras promote safety.

We all need to do our part to avoid accidents, but not everyone is fully committed. If we want drivers to buy in, we need to ensure they have accurate information about safe driving practices. Our laws need to motivated by the desire to protect the public.

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