July 13, 2000 (Washington) -- The red light is meant to be a barrier against oncoming traffic, but all too often the traffic signal is like waving a red flag at oblivious or aggressive motorists. The net result, according to a study supported by the insurance industry, is that 800 people in the U.S. die each year in accidents involving red-light violations.
Some 200,000 are injured in these crashes yearly as well. More than half are innocent victims. Between 1992 to 1998, it's estimated that 6,000 people were killed and 1,500,000 injured in similar situations.
But maybe the answer, or at least part of it, could literally be a snap. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety feels that so-called red-light cameras can catch many violators in the act, or hopefully, stop them from making a mistake that could have lethal consequences.
The Institute looked at how well the cameras did in Oxnard, Calif., and Fairfax, Va., and came to the conclusion that putting intersections under the watchful gaze of the cameras reduced red-light running by 40%. While the number is impressive, it doesn't mean the cameras have yet to show a lower accident or injury rate. Overseas where the cameras have been in use much longer, evidence shows they do reduce crashes.
"Unfortunately, we find over and over again that the most effective way to change driver behavior is to threaten them with a ticket," Institute president Brian O'Neill says. He also says that while most drivers don't believe they'll have an accident, they can be convinced getting a ticket is a reality.
"If the cameras are secret, they're not going to achieve their purpose," O'Neill says.
Ricardo Martinez, MD, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, supports the idea of red-light cameras, particularly since intersection accidents are among the most deadly. One vehicle hits the other driving into it with a bullet-like force. "The injuries are devastating; it's usually chest and pelvis, direct load," he says.
For about $60,000, an intersection can be equipped with cameras. The devices take a picture before a vehicle crosses an intersection threshold and while it's traveling through. Data in the frame indicates how many seconds have elapsed since the light turned red and how fast the offender was going.