The effectiveness of traffic cameras can be boiled down to a tale of two cities – in this case Seattle and Auburn.
In Seattle, where traffic cameras have been installed in up to 30 intersections since 2006, the program is considered a public safety and public coffers success.
“In general, where red light cameras have been put in … we have seen notable reductions in collisions,” said Mike Morris-Lent, senior civil engineer in Seattle’s Department of Transportation. “The cameras are doing what they are supposed to be doing, reducing … collisions which tend to be severe and result in injury.”
Data from the two years before and after Seattle’s traffic cameras were installed shows that collisions declined in 17 of 20 intersections, and overall by about 23 percent. Meanwhile, some 263,465 red-light camera citations have been issued, generating $24.6 million in revenue, according to Seattle Police.
But in Auburn, city officials decided last month to scrap their program, citing no clear reduction in collisions although violations plummeted. Essentially, while the cameras caused drivers to be more vigilant, they’re still having accidents.
Nationwide, the cameras became political lightning rods in 2014, with public officials dueling over their use in Ohio, Missouri, New Jersey, parts of New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
While nothing definitively accounts for the cameras’ contrasting outcomes, the objective of the programs could explain the difference for Seattle and Auburn.
Proponents of the devices say the cameras serve as a formidable deterrent to drivers running red lights and the life-threatening collisions they can cause.
Cynics, however, see the devices as a blatant money grab for cash-strapped municipalities. They can easily double and sometimes triple citations at a busy intersection in just one year. Chicago generated more than half a billion dollars since implementing traffic camera program, according to a Chicago Tribune study.
Full disclosure, I got a traffic camera speeding ticket in D.C. a few years ago. Being cited remotely for a traffic violation left me feeling violated and powerless to fight back. The citation I received in the mail included images of my license plate and a reporting of my speed from an electronic monitoring device.
And since many cities now use cameras to monitor public spaces, any attempt to cling to a distant sense of public privacy is folly.
But the devices will remain controversial. Drivers will keep on disliking them. And municipalities will keep on loving their easy cash flow.
Still, cities big and small should carefully consider whether traffic cameras are right for their municipality. And if they choose to use cameras, cities should follow Auburn and Seattle’s lead and monitor whether they really save lives.