Red-light cameras can make driving safer, but sometimes governments adopting the technology have been more worried about making money than reducing vehicle crashes.
That's the opinion of Roy Lucke, research director at Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety. He has reviewed the sometimes conflicting research on the cameras and his center advises governments on their use. "Where proper studies are done, where proper research is done," he said, the cameras "have been shown to reduce crash severity, if not crash numbers."
One study cited often in a debate over use of the technology was done by the Federal Highway Administration in 2005. The study of red-light cameras in seven cities that found right-angle crashes were cut by 25 percent, while rear-end crashes rose 15 percent, perhaps because drivers were quickly hitting the brakes to avoid getting nabbed.
"You are trading high speed T-bones for low speed rear-ends," said Lucke. "That result has been shown in some other studies as well."
New York City has had red-light cameras since 1993. City attorney Stephen Louis said that about year ago, the state Legislature authorized Buffalo, Yonkers, Rochester and Nassau and Suffolk counties to create local programs. Nassau began using the cameras in August, he said. Suffolk is just getting started, with one camera in operation.
Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said that while the cameras can stir debate when they are introduced, there is consensus among traffic experts about their value and that public opinion surveys support their use.
But Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorist Association, said it's more about the revenue.
In some cases, Lucke said, governments have installed red-light cameras at intersections with the greatest traffic volume rather than the highest incidence of crashes, thus generating the most revenue. Also, he said, some areas have reduced display time for yellow lights after the cameras are in place.
Nassau traffic safety officials said that the approximately 30 county intersections with the cameras were chosen based on number of accidents and traffic volume. Display times for yellow lights were not changed, they said.