Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge Rotating Header Image

Proceed with caution on red-light cameras

There’s a lot of conflicting information “out there” on the results of traffic cameras. Whatever conclusions you want to support, you are sure to be able to find a study that supports that conclusion. Oak Ridge (and any other community considering cameras) needs to “proceed with caution” in making a decision.

I haven’t sorted out all of the various “pro-camera” and “anti-camera” groups. However, National Motorists Association is a consistent opponent, while Insurance Institute for Highway Safety loves traffic cameras. The research findings these two groups report and the manner of their presentations are strongly correlated with their positions on cameras.

Everybody seems to agree that there are no valid controls for any of the studies (for example, in any “before” and “after” study there are numerous other changes occurring that could influence accident rates and severities). There are suggestions that the findings reported are strongly correlated with the affiliations of the people doing the reporting (kind of like drug companies that don’t report the results of the clinical studies that did not find favorable results).

There even seem to be some full-blown conspiracy theories about red light cameras — I’ve seen allegations that one Insurance Institute for Highway Safety staff member is working with traffic engineering professional organizations, vendors, and possibly local governments to “sell” red-light cameras. One allegation is that standards for yellow-light durations have been so as to increase the number of redlight violations, thus creating a profitable market in stopping violations. Former U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Dick Armey sponsored some sort of Congressional investigation that found that since 1985, yellow traffic light timing had been cut “from an average of five seconds to three seconds in duration” (at the recommendation of traffic engineering organizations) and alleged that “revenue collected from intersections with these shorter durations have become a mainstay of many local governments.” (See this article on the National Motorists Association website).

One of the conspiracy-theorist charges that I don’t believe is true is the allegation that these are a big source of cash for local governments. The main money issue with these systems is that they are expensive to set up and maintain. As a result, they don’t get used except in locations where they are expected to generate a lot of revenue from tickets, and most of the ticket revenue goes to pay for the system (including both money for the vendor and local costs for operation). In many jurisdictions, ticket revenue is less than the cost of the system. Indeed, yesterday an Oak Ridge resident alerted city officials to an interesting article that discusses jurisdictions that have shut off their cameras due to declining revenues.

Added March 29th: Over at AtomicCityTalk.com, Ray Evans posted a link to Federal Highway Administration Red Light Camera Systems Operational Guidelines, which is presumably a neutral source and has comprehensive practical information on the whole topic.



  1. Ray Kircher says:

    Great collection of pros and cons.

    I am leaning to the Knoxville case that these cameras are violating constitutional rights. Further I can see that safety in a city can be bought by individual citizens. If you have the money go ahead an run it, nothing else will happen after the fine.

    I’ve sat at red lights late in the evening, often wondering if the light would change. If I run it and the only thing there to catch me is a camera, is that breaking the law? No one else was there, just me and the red light.

  2. CrackerNation says:

    Ellen, you have a typo concerning Ray Evans’ post. It was at http://www.AtomicCityTalk.com/

  3. Ellen Smith says:

    Thanks, CrackerNation. I fixed the error.

  4. Tom Barron says:

    Hi, Ellen. Thank you for your thoughtful reflections and sharing on this issue. I’d like to call your attention to these two items. The first is from security expert Bruce Schneier’s blog:


    The second is from Techdirt:


    Thanks again for your thoughtful and careful input to the running of our city.


  5. Jerry Kuhaida says:


    I just recently rean a Letter to the Editor (Oak Ridger or Observer) where one of our brilliant Oak Ridger did calculations on vehicle speed, human reaction time, stopping distance, etc. His calculations were for Lovell Road and I-40 where he received a mailed fine. I had the same experience- checking to see if I could stop safely. I didn’t see the fine, but the camera caught me.

    For the Turnpike and Illinois Avenues, the traffic currently on those roads, especially 3 PM-6 PM and 5:30 AM to 9:00 Am, would create havoc. Most of those vehicles are in a hurry to get through Oak Ridge to a job.

    I have traveled those streets for years and as I became aware of the various driving habits, I stop or speed. It depends on my reaction or time to react depending on what the car behind me is doing (speed, cell phone, fixing hair) and the possible cars approaching to my left, right, or turing in front of me. The option I have preffered is to use Tennessee Ave and Robertsville Road to bypass the Turnpike. If Oak Ridgers did this then we would have similar traffic light problems there. but then.

    Regardless of the source of any organization’s estimates or values or formula, any calculations need to adress the reality of the traffic conditions at the traffic lights on those streets.
    A primary consideration also needs to be the legality. Camera use is in the courts in a number of states and my guess is that a smart lawyer some where is going to get caught by the camera and successfuly challenge it.

    Whatever you decide, just make sure it’s the right thing for all Oak Ridgers.

    There aren’t any traffic lights in Iraq, just traffic roundabouts.

    Jerry Kuhaida

  6. […] I encourage all citizens to learn more and contribute to the dialogue that has already occurred here, here, and here. […]

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