Red light cameras (RLCs) have popped up all over the country, including Maryland. No longer do police officers have to sit at intersections and wait for people to blaze through — a camera mounted at the intersection does all the work, monitoring traffic 24 hours a day, taking pictures of violators and passing them along to the ticketing department, who mail out the violations. Cities argue that they make intersections safer and more efficient, not to mention profitable. However, a recent study by the Maryland Department of Transportation complicates this picture, suggesting that in some cases red light cameras can actually lead to an increase in rear-end collisions.
The study looked at data from 27 intersections over a 10-year period, which captured the behavior of more than 1,000 drivers as they encountered RLC intersections. They compared this information for crash statistics from other intersections without cameras and found that RLC systems tended to reduce side-impact collisions. In addition, this reduction carried over to the neighboring intersections, a so-called “spillover” effect. Even when no cameras were present, drivers tended to modify their behavior and drive more cautiously, stopping on yellow lights more frequently.
Despite the safety benefits, one area in which RLCs made no impact was rear-end collisions. In fact, depending on the kinds of drivers in the neighborhood, some RLCs increased the likelihood of rear-end collisions. Because some drivers worried about getting a ticket, they’d slam on their brakes, taking other drivers by surprise. While it’s important to keep intersections safe, a percentage of Maryland’s traffic accidents are simply being transferred to other parts of the road.
Red light cameras are a fact of life in Maryland, and they aren’t going away anytime soon. Because of that, you need to watch for erratic behavior from other drivers when you’re behind the wheel. Just because someone would ordinarily go through a light doesn’t mean they’ll do the same when there’s a camera around. Keep your eyes open. Increase your following distance. Pay attention to the RLC advanced warning signs. If you can do that, you’ll be able to avoid their unfortunate side effects.