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.
Notification of the violation comes by mail. At the moment, red-light cameras are only used in about 40 U.S. jurisdictions, but the Institute hopes that will change. One worry is that the photograph amounts to an invasion of privacy, possibly publicizing who's in the vehicle or the license plate.
Arthur Spitzer, JD, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in the Washington, D.C., area, tells WebMD he's not worried about the red-light cameras, at least as they're currently used.
"We certainly would object to a kind of 'Big Brother' surveillance where there would be cameras that would show who you were driving with, or who you were walking down the street with, that would record your conversation out on the street with other people," Spitzer says.
"I think that the correct view should be to be concerned about the safety of these motorists and pedestrians who are at risk from these violators," O'Neill says.
Data from the U.S. Department of Transportation indicate regional variations in red-light running. Arizona has the highest rate, with about seven incidents per 100,000 people. Other states near the top include Michigan and Nevada, second and third respectively.
Among cities, Phoenix, Ariz., ranked first; followed by Memphis, Tenn. Mesa and Tucson, Ariz., were third and fourth. It's not clear why Arizona drivers stand out among violators.
Meanwhile, another new study shows that one in five fatal car crashes in the U.S. involves a driver who either lacks a valid license or whose driving credentials are unknown. The report -- titled "Unlicensed to Kill" -- was prepared by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
The analysis indicates 8,400 people a year die from wrecks where an unlicensed driver was a factor. About 30% of these violators had received three or more license suspensions or revocations in a three-year period prior to a deadly accident.
It's unclear how many unauthorized drivers are on American roads.