By on June 30, 2011

The controversy over red light cameras, once relegated to websites like TTAC,, and, is hitting the mainstream media thanks to a new study by the IIHS [PDF here]. The study used the following methodology:

Telephone surveys were conducted with 3,111 drivers in 14 large cities (population greater than 200,000) with long-standing red light camera programs and 300 drivers in Houston, using random samples of landline and cellphone numbers. For analyses combining responses from the 14 cities, cases were weighted to reflect each city’s share of the total population for the 14 cities.

And what did they find?

Among drivers in the 14 cities with red light camera programs, two-thirds favor the use of cameras for red light enforcement, and 42 percent strongly favor it. The chief reasons for opposing cameras were the perceptions that cameras make mistakes and that the motivation for installing them is revenue, not safety. Forty-one percent of drivers favor using cameras to enforce right-turn-on-red violations. Nearly 9 in 10 drivers were aware of the camera enforcement programs in their cities, and 59 percent of these drivers believe the cameras have made intersections safer. Almost half know someone who received a red light camera citation and 17 percent had received at least one ticket themselves. When compared with drivers in the 14 cities with camera programs, the percentage of drivers in Houston who strongly favored enforcement was about the same (45 percent), but strong opposition was higher in Houston than in the other cities (28 percent versus 18 percent).

Sounds like those red light cameras are pretty great after all, doesn’t it? That’s certainly the IIHS’s takeaway…

The IIHS concludes:

Most drivers in cities with long-standing red light camera programs support cameras and recognize their safety benefits, but communities could do a better job of educating the public about the dangers of right-turn-on-red violations and the need for enforcement. Given that camera opponents frequently said cameras make mistakes, it appears communities also could do a better job of explaining the safeguards that ensure citations are issued only to drivers who clearly run red lights.

But that’s a fairly one-sided interpretation of the data, as you might expect from a body that derives its funding from the insurance industry, which in turn has a vested interest in anything that might reduce insurance payouts, regardless of other drawbacks or context. What do I mean by that? Let’s go line-by-line through the IIHS’s conclusions:

Most drivers in cities with long-standing red light camera programs support cameras and recognize their safety benefits

First of all, the data underlying this conclusion is skewed by only including respondents in cities with “long-running red light camera systems.” The only exception is one city that had red light cameras but voted them out: Houston. And despite finding stronger opposition there than in other cities with red light cameras, the IIHS is forced to concede another problematic finding: “In Houston, 53 percent of voters cast ballots against the cameras in November 2010. In the current study, however, 57 percent of the drivers interviewed said they favor camera enforcement, and 45 strongly favor cameras”).

So where are the respondents from cities that had cameras but voted them out? Where in this report can we hear the voices of the citizens of Anaheim? Or Cincinnati? Or San Bernadino? Or how about Baytown, Texas, where the fraudulent tendencies of the red light camera companies couldn’t have been more obvious? Sadly, the list goes on. The IIHS has made its point about “cities with long-standing red light camera programs,” but it’s not at all clear that this data reflects wider American sentiment.

Meanwhile, even among this selective data set, there are issues. When asked if drivers running red lights is a problem in the city, the most common answer, with 38%, was “not a problem.” The next-most popular choice, with 31.8%: “somewhat of a problem.” Furthermore, nearly 93% of respondents said they had not run a red light in the last 30 days, further indicating that the problem is rare and limited to a small percentage of the population. A more fair presentation of the data would simply state that drivers see red-light running as having high risk potential, but that they don’t see it as a common, or everyday problem. This doubtless helps fuel a major complaint about red light cameras, namely that they exist primarily for revenue generation rather than safety.

Given that camera opponents frequently said cameras make mistakes, it appears communities also could do a better job of explaining the safeguards that ensure citations are issued only to drivers who clearly run red lights.

For one thing, the fallibility of cameras was not overwhelmingly chosen as a reason for opposition. At 26.4%, it was the number one reason for opposing, but “focus is on money, not safety” was an extremely close second, at 26.1%. If anything, the need for education is not limited to “explaining safeguards,” but rather explaining the financial incentives that local governments and photo enforcement firms have to rack up as many tickets, accurate or not, as possible. After all, if 4.4 percent are saying “camera programs cost too much money,” clearly there’s a disconnect between how people view red light cameras and the reality (as red light cameras are almost always revenue positive for local governments, unless massive errors or fraud force them to return fines).

but communities could do a better job of educating the public about the dangers of right-turn-on-red violations and the need for enforcement… it appears communities also could do a better job of explaining the safeguards that ensure citations are issued only to drivers who clearly run red lights.

Too bad the IIHS hadn’t sounded the alarm on the need for pro-red light camera “education” a few months ago… Bill Kroske might still have a job. In all seriousness, the 90%+ awareness level among respondents seems to indicate that folks do know that the cameras exist… what the IIHS seems to be suggesting is that people should be indoctrinated to believe that more red lights are fundamentally good, and that these beneficent cameras never screw up. Both of these points of “education” are aimed more at propagating photo enforcement industry talking points than furthering the public good.

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12 Comments on “IIHS Study Loves Red Light Cameras, Says Americans Do Too...”

  • avatar
    George B

    I bet the general public doesn’t understand that the percentage of red light violations for blowing straight through intersections is small. The big problem I see with red light cameras is they generate large numbers of tickets for somewhat aggressive driving practices that are not normally enforced by cops, at least here in Texas.

    First, when making a right turn on red, almost all drivers around here ignore the white line at the intersection and stop past the line but before the intersection, look for traffic, and then make a safe right turn. That practice causes most of the tickets. 85% of them in the Duncanville, TX case.

    The other aggressive thing that normal drivers do at intersections with really long light cycles and heavy traffic is to go through the intersection on a yellow after stopping on red and getting stuck behind traffic on green. Potentially dangerous, but not up there with entering the intersection on red.

  • avatar

    This is pretty much the end of the IIHS’s credibility.

    • 0 avatar

      Is duplicity too strong a word for the IIHS’s selective and distorted reporting of the evidence? I don’t think so. Wasn’t there anyone in the room to point out that credibility for any organization is a precious asset, difficult to build and easily chipped away. Why the IIHS would do it’s own chipping is a puzzle.

    • 0 avatar
      Acc azda atch


      Hate to inform you..

  • avatar

    If the public really did support Big Brother cameras watching them at intersections, then the camera lobby would not be using every legal shenanigan they can find to prevent the voters from having a say in the matter.

    The IIHS has been anti-driver for decades. This is just the latest evidence.


  • avatar

    My first thought was “what Americans?” I don’t fall into their category of red light camera enjoyment, and I agree with the opinions of the posters above.

  • avatar

    1) The IIHS loves the cameras because the points they rack up really jack up insurance premiums.

    2) The IIHS carefully crafts the questions to ensure the desired responses are given.

    3) The IIHS has a method of gathering and manipulating data in a way that earns a scientifically-valid score of zero.

    4) When the number of citations equals a city’s population, something is definitely wrong.

    5) When red light violations drop 97% when the green is lengthened 3 seconds and the yellow 1 second, something is wrong.

    6) When all but a handful of red light violations are less than one second, something is wrong.

    7) When the penalty is the same for a 0.15 second infraction as for a 5 second violation, something is wrong.

    8) When the cameras only appear when city spending is wildly out of control, something is wrong.

    9) When the green and yellow light times are suddenly slashed just prior to camera installation, something is wrong.

    10) When cities absolutely refuse to follow the federal guidelines (which puts the absolute minimum time at about 5.5 seconds), something is wrong.

    11) When the cities and cameras blatantly, in-your-face refuse to gather data that may prove the cameras have no effect on safety or are actually counter-productive, something is wrong.

    12) When the cities and camera companies flood the media with fake pro-camera “citizens” comments, something is wrong.

    This whole deal has been proven upside down since at least 1998 yet the corrosive draw of the incredible amounts of money keep it rolling along.

  • avatar

    I’d be all for a left lane bandit camera.

  • avatar
    johnny ro

    Compare this to the recent Japan initiative to put warning lights in cars so you know when a light up ahead is a threat. I am embarrassed by this.

  • avatar

    mandatory toll tags would be better than red light cameras.

  • avatar

    When they put the first couple of red light cams in around here, about 11 years ago, I would see the flashes going off constantly, as people were blatantly blowing lights. Now, I haven’t seen one go off in a long time, probably a year. I don’t see nearly as many people blowing lights like they did 11 years ago either, so I guess they did have some kind of positive effect. A friend got a ticket on one recently, and it was dismissed after he got them to produce the pics showing he got stuck in the middle of the intersection due to an old car stalling in front of him, making him technically run the red. It should never have been issued in the first place, but the company running the cams put it through anyway. I wonder how many people just pay them without a fight?

    • 0 avatar
      lets drive

      Sadly, sometimes it’s just easier to pay them without a fight, even if you have somewhat of an excuse/case. For most, the fine is low enough that it makes sense to pay, rather than lose the time at work trying to fight it. At least in the state of Maryland, the judge usually views it as a black and white case, especially since a camera lacks discretion, making the Judge’s job easy, since he can always fall back on the technicality.

      Even still, admitting guilt with an excuse for a reduction in the fine, still doesn’t make up for the lost work time sitting in a court room. On the opposite end, pleading “not guilty” means you have to somehow get around the black and white technicality mentioned above, and if you lose, you’re out for more money than if you had just payed the fine, originally. And in this case, most people aren’t equipped to support themselves in a trial.

      It’s a very clever, though somewhat deceptive, system. I’m not saying there haven’t been benefits to it, or that some people don’t deserve their fines– however, it’s clear the motivation behind them is as much about revenue, which leaves many skeptical. The heavy lobbying of the private companies, and then immediate support of the state, don’t make it seem like they have the drivers best interest at stake.

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