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Q&A: RED LIGHT CAMERAS
as of December 2000
Red light cameras can help communities enforce traffic laws by automatically photographing vehicles whose drivers run red lights. A red light camera system is connected to the traffic signal and to sensors buried in the pavement at the crosswalk or stop line. The system continuously monitors the traffic signal, and the camera itself is triggered by any vehicle passing over the sensors above a pre-set minimum speed and a specified time after the signal has turned red. A second photograph is taken that typically shows the red light violator in the intersection. The camera records the date, time of day, and time elapsed since the beginning of the red signal and the speed of the vehicle. Electronic flash produces clear images of vehicles under all light and weather conditions. Tickets typically are sent by mail to owners of violating vehicles, based on review of photographic evidence.
1. What is red light running? A violation occurs when a motorist deliberately enters an intersection after the signal light has turned red. Motorists inadvertently in an intersection when the signal changes to red -- when waiting to turn, for example -- aren't red light runners. 2. Is red light running a big problem? Drivers who run red lights are responsible for an estimated 260,000 crashes each year, of which approximately 750 are fatal. On a national basis, fatal motor vehicle crashes at traffic signals increased 18 percent between 1992 and 1998, far outpacing the 6 percent rise in all other fatal crashes. Red light running is a big part of the problem. Institute researchers determined that during this time period there were 5,294 red light running crashes, rising from 702 in 1992 to 745 in 1998, a 6 percent increase. Running red lights and other traffic controls like stop and yield signs is the most frequent type of urban crash, Institute research shows. Researchers studied police reports of crashes on public roads in four urban areas during 1990 and 1991. Of 13 crash types researchers identified, running traffic controls accounted for 22 percent of all crashes. Among crashes involving running traffic controls, 24 percent involved running red lights. The same study shows that motorists are more likely to be injured in crashes involving red light running than in other types of crashes. Occupant injuries occurred in 45 percent of the red light running crashes studied, compared with 30 percent for other crash types. 3. How often do drivers run red lights? A study conducted over several months at a busy intersection in Arlington County, Virginia, an urban area outside Washington, D.C., indicates that motorists frequently run red lights. On average, a motorist ran a red light every 12 minutes. During peak travel times, red light running was more frequent. For example, between 8 and 9 a.m., a motorist ran a red light every 5 minutes. 4. Isn't conventional police enforcement sufficient? Enforcing traffic laws in dense urban areas by traditional means poses special difficulties for police, who in most cases must follow a violating vehicle through a red light to stop it. This can endanger motorists and pedestrians as well as officers, and police
can't be everywhere at once. Communities don't have the resources to allow police to patrol intersections as often as would be needed to ticket all motorists who run red lights. The cameras allow police to focus on other enforcement needs. 5. What safety benefits do red light cameras provide? They've been shown to reduce red light violations and intersection crashes. A recent Institute study of a program in Oxnard, California, shows that red light running violations dropped a total of 42 percent after cameras were introduced at nine intersections, which includes a similar decline at intersections that weren't equipped with them. Another study showed violations declined about 40 percent in Fairfax, Virginia after one year of camera enforcement. Victoria, Australia, began using red light cameras at traffic signal intersections in 1983 and posted signs alerting motorists of their presence. A subsequent report by the Road Traffic Authority found a 32 percent decrease in right-angle collisions and a 10 percent reduction in injuries after the cameras were installed. 6. Who runs red lights? The Institute created a profile of red light runners by studying driver behavior at an Arlington, Virginia, intersection equipped with a red light camera. The study compared red light runners to motorists who had an opportunity to run a red light but didn't. As a group, red light runners were younger, less likely to use safety belts, had poorer driving records, and drove smaller and older vehicles than drivers who stopped for red lights. Red light runners were more than three times as likely to have multiple speeding convictions on their driver records. No gender differences were found between violators and drivers who didn't run red lights. 7. Do the cameras photograph every vehicle passing through an intersection? No. The cameras typically are set so only those vehicles that enter an intersection after the light has turned red are photographed. Drivers who enter on yellow and find themselves in an intersection when the light changes to red aren't photographed. This technology is intended to catch vehicles driven by motorists who intentionally enter an intersection well after the signal has turned red. 8. Does someone review the photographs before motorists are ticketed? Yes. Trained police officers or other officials review every picture to verify vehicle information and ensure that the vehicle is in violation. Tickets are mailed to vehicle owners only in cases where it's clear the vehicle ran the red light. 9. Do red light cameras violate motorists' privacy? No. Driving is a regulated activity on public roads. By obtaining a license, motorists agree to abide by certain rules -- to obey traffic signals, for example. Neither the law nor common sense suggests drivers shouldn't be observed on the road or have their violations documented. In addition, red light camera systems can be designed to photograph only a vehicle's rear license plate -- not vehicle occupants, depending on local law. more information on legal issues | 10. Are special laws needed to allow localities to use red light cameras to cite violators? In order for localities to use the cameras for law enforcement purposes, laws must authorize enforcement agencies to cite red light violators by mail. The legislation also must make the vehicle owner responsible for the ticket, establishing a presumption that the registered owner is the vehicle driver at the time of the offense. Red light cameras are currently permitted in 12 states -- Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington -- and the District of Columbia. Violations photographed by red light cameras are most commonly treated in two ways -- as traffic violations or as the equivalent of parking tickets, depending on state law. If, as in New York, red light camera violations are treated like parking citations, the law can make registered vehicle owners responsible without regard to
who is driving at the time of the offense. Virginia makes red light camera violations a civil offense like New York, but unlike New York, the state allows registered owners to avoid citations by filing affidavits swearing they weren't driving when the violations occurred. 11. Are red light camera programs expensive? A red light camera costs about $50,000. Installation and sensors cost about $5,000. A single red light camera can be used at several locations once the sites are equipped to work with the camera, allowing communities to move cameras between sites without drivers knowing which ones are active at any given time. Startup costs can be offset by fines paid by violators, savings from crashes prevented, and by freeing police to focus on other enforcement efforts. 12. Does the American public support the use of red light cameras? The U.S. public strongly supports the use of red light cameras. Two 1995 surveys sponsored by the Institute revealed that nationwide, 66 percent of 1,006 people polled said they favor the use of red light cameras, compared with 28 percent who opposed. A 1996 survey by the Insurance Research Council found that the highest support for red light cameras was in large cities, where 83 percent of respondents supported their use. Strong support is also found in communities where the cameras are used; recent red light camera programs in Oxnard, California and Fairfax, Virginia, were supported by 80 percent of residents polled. 13. Do major US cities use red light cameras? They're used for law enforcement in New York City; Washington, DC; Baltimore; Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, California; and Charlotte, North Carolina, in addition to many smaller communities. 14. What other countries use red light cameras? Photographic detection devices are used extensively in many other countries including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.
Howard County Department of Public Works, Bureau of Highways AUTOMATED RED LIGHT RUNNING DETECTION
by C. Edward Walter, Chief (Retired), Traffic Engineering Division; Member of ITE When the traffic signal turns red, drivers stop. Or do they? There is a growing body of evidence that many drivers don't. Perhaps congestion, impatience and reckless driving all contribute to the growing problem of drivers deliberately running red traffic signals. Researchers have found that 22 percent of urban crashes resulted from drivers running traffic controls. This was the largest single type of crash. Drivers running through red lights constitute a major portion of intersection crashes1. Enforcing traffic signal compliance in urban areas using police officers presents special problems. Traffic pursuits can be dangerous to police and other motorists. Additionally, there is the problem of allocating police resources to ticket red light runners. Fortunately, red signal compliance can be automated. Photo technology to enforce traffic regulations has been in use for the past 30 years worldwide. Its use has contributed to a dramatic reduction in the number and severity of traffic collisions in Europe, Australia and South Africa. In 1993, New York City began a red light running detection campaign with the installation of cameras at 15 signalized intersections. In a year, 175,000 violation notices were processed. The number of violations at each location decreased by an average of 21percent. Howard County, Maryland, has become increasingly concerned about the number of accidents and fatalities caused by red light violations, locally as well as nationwide. Knowing of the New York City experience, the county requested and received a grant from the Federal Highway Administration to evaluate the effectiveness of automated detection in a suburban area. A consultant was employed to do a state-of-the-art evaluation of detection methods and to help the county implement a system. Technology Red light running cameras provide detection for one intersection approach. The camera system is connected to the traffic signal system controller and monitors the red, yellow and green phases of an approach. The camera system is also connected to loops or piezoes in the road to detect vehicle presence and speed. After onset of the red phase, a vehicle traveling over the detectors will activate the camera, causing it to take two photographs. Time since the beginning of the red phase and speed can be varied with a camera system to provide a grace period and to differentiate vehicles attempting to stop or turn right on red from those that are clear violations. For example, in Howard County the camera is not triggered unless a violation occurs 3/10* of a second or more after the signal turns red and the vehicle is traveling more than 19 mph*. The resulting photographs clearly show the front of the vehicle at the stop bar before entering the intersection; 6/10 of a second later a second photograph shows the vehicle in the intersection. Using color photography, it is easy to see that the traffic signal is red. Superimposed on each photograph is the date and time of the violation, together with the number of seconds since the signal turned red and the speed at which the violation occurred. Additional identifying information is also shown. The existing camera technology works exceedingly well and is extremely reliable. There are five major manufacturers of red light camera equipment. Three of the manufacturers are in Europe, one is in South Africa, and one in the United States. Howard County is using the Dutch Gatsometer, which is represented in
the United States by U.S. Public Technologies. The Gatsometer unit consists of a dedicated computer and removable industrial robot camera with a 100 foot film pack. The unit, which includes a built-in flash, fits in a special housing a top a hinged pole. Some other manufacturers use a fixed pole while American Traffic Systems provides an automatic elevator pole adapted from a garage door opener.2 All of the camera systems use bulk loaded 35mm film and are available with different lenses, depending on placement of the camera unit and the number of lanes to be monitored. Special loop detectors are placed in the roadway and run directly to the computer/camera assembly, which includes detector amplifiers. Depending on location, the built-in flash unit can be combined with a separate slave flash unit mounted close to the intersection. Selecting proper locations for a red light camera is critical. In Howard County, we began by examining accident data with particular emphasis on angle accidents. Intersection plans were examined, followed by field review, and if the intersection appeared to be a worthwhile candidate, a specially modified traffic counter manufactured for us by Mitron Corporation was used, which only counted vehicles crossing during the red phase. The counter was set up with an initial delay of 3/10 of a second, corresponding to the proposed automated detector device. Likewise, only vehicles entering the intersection at speeds greater than 20 mph were tabulated. Candidate intersections should have 30 or more violations per day to justify the cost of installation and operation. Police Partnership Automatic red light detection requires a partnership between the police department and traffic engineering. We can evaluate camera systems and choose locations to be monitored, but it ultimately becomes the police department's responsibility to operate the cameras, process the film and prepare the notices of violation. In a demonstration program, the number of violations may be manageable for processing in-house. However, in a full scale operation with 10-20 cameras operating and with each camera catching 30-40 violators a day, the situation can quickly overwhelm the capabilities of a police department. In New York City, Electronic Data Systems Corporation services the cameras, processes the film, and prepares the notices of violations under contract with New York City. The violation notices are reviewed and signed by a police department representative. The sheer volume of data that accumulates and must be available in the event of court trials requires establishment of a record keeping system with quick recovery capability. Although a small percentage of violations come to trial, the data for those which do must be available for the judge's perusal. In New York City, the photographs are digitized and stored on central computers and the judges have remote computer and monitor capability to retrieve and examine the data. It appears obvious that a close partnership is required between the police and traffic engineering during all phases of the red light camera detection operation. In Howard County, a representative of the Police Department worked closely with the Traffic Engineering Division as the program moved forward. With the project into the implementation phase, the police have assumed the dominant role while traffic has retained the technical location and interface aspects. Enabling Legislation Under most State law, moving violations require the apprehension and issuance of a ticket to the driver of a motor vehicle. If the driver elects to appear in court, the officer must testify that this person was the driver of the motor vehicle and the driver was the person who signed the violation ticket.
Automatic detection of red light runners will generally require changes to motor vehicle laws to charge the vehicle owner, not the driver. The typical camera installation photographs the vehicle from the rear and the driver and passengers cannot be seen, much less identified. The generally accepted change, and what we did in Maryland, was to treat automated detection of red light violators in a manner similar to a parking offense. The vehicle owner is charged, a fine is imposed and no points are involved. New York City got a special local law from the General Assembly3 with a sunset provision in it, which permitted the City to send violation notices and prosecute red light runners in this fashion. In Maryland, the 1997 State Legislature approved a statewide law without a sunset provision. It became effective in October 1997. Future Developments Timely issuance of notices of violations for red light runners is imperative. This requires that the cameras be serviced frequently, perhaps daily. Issuance of a notice of violation is manpower intensive and costly. Fortunately, new technology is becoming available to reduce costs and speed processing of violation notices. Film technology is being replaced with digital technology. Digital cameras are already available from Kodak and several Japanese manufacturers. The availability of digital cameras means that images can be transmitted to a central location where they can automatically be printed onto a notice of violation. The digital pictures taken by a system can be stored internally or retrieved remotely using modem telephone connections or wireless radio. This type of system allows electronic storage and retrieval with a minimum of manpower. It is ideally suited for the large data base operation required for processing red light running violations. We are working under a federal grant to demonstrate the feasibility of digital based red light running detection systems. We have identified plausible technology and begun the installation of systems at four sites from vendors in Australia, France, Great Britain and Israel. Optical character recognition, which is available today, could be a natural adjunct to digital photography and permit automated processing of license plate numbers for identification of owners and their addresses. This would further reduce manpower requirements. Automated red light running detection is a rapidly developing field that could provide an important tool for improving highway safety. It also helps cement the natural partnership between police enforcement and traffic engineering. *Note: As variations in geometrics and approach speeds are encountered the default value of 0.3sec may be reduced to 0.2sec or increased to 0.4sec. Default speeds may be reduced to 14mph or increased to 21mph.
Bibliography 1. Retting and Williams, "Characteristics of Red Light Violations: Results of a Field Investigation," Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, October 1994. 2. "Technology Assessment; Automated Traffic Signal Violation Detection and Enforcement Systems," Electronic Data Systems, August 17, 1995. 3. State of New York, Senate Assembly Bill S550-D, A 923-D, January 13, 1987.
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