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D.C. Red-Light Cameras Fail to Reduce Accidents

D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said citations for red-light running have dropped by about 60 percent at intersections that have the cameras.
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said citations for red-light running have dropped by about 60 percent at intersections that have the cameras. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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By Del Quentin Wilber and Derek Willis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 4, 2005

The District's red-light cameras have generated more than 500,000 violations and $32 million in fines over the past six years. City officials credit them with making busy roads safer.

But a Washington Post analysis of crash statistics shows that the number of accidents has gone up at intersections with the cameras. The increase is the same or worse than at traffic signals without the devices.

Three outside traffic specialists independently reviewed the data and said they were surprised by the results. Their conclusion: The cameras do not appear to be making any difference in preventing injuries or collisions.

"The data are very clear," said Dick Raub, a traffic consultant and a former senior researcher at Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety. "They are not performing any better than intersections without cameras."

The District started the camera program in 1999, and from the beginning, officials said they were aiming to curtail red-light running and accidents. At the time, Terrance W. Gainer, then the second-highest ranking D.C. police official, said the cameras would "get people to stop at red lights and avoid crashes. . . . Hopefully, we'll have a few less messes to clean up."

D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said he remains convinced that the devices are worthwhile. Even if the number of crashes is not going down, he said, citations for red-light running have dropped by about 60 percent at intersections that have cameras.

Ramsey said the number of accidents would be even higher without the cameras, adding that he would like to install them at every traffic light in the city. He pointed to last year's steep decrease in traffic fatalities -- 45 people died compared with 69 in 2003 -- as evidence that the program is working.

"I'd rather have them than not have them," Ramsey said. "They make people slow down. They reduce the number of traffic violations, and that's a good thing."

City officials attribute the increase in accidents to higher traffic volume. But that does not explain why the presence of cameras has failed to slow the rate of accidents at those intersections, Raub and others said. The outside experts suggested that the cameras might be more useful at other locations, and D.C. officials said they are studying the issue.

The city has cameras at 45 intersections. They take photographs of cars running red lights, generating tickets that are processed by a private contractor. Police oversee the issuance of tickets, which carry $75 fines, and the money goes into the city's general fund -- nearly $5 million last year.

The Post obtained a D.C. database generated from accident reports filed by police. The data covered the entire city, including the 37 intersections where cameras were installed in 1999 and 2000.

The analysis shows that the number of crashes at locations with cameras more than doubled, from 365 collisions in 1998 to 755 last year. Injury and fatal crashes climbed 81 percent, from 144 such wrecks to 262. Broadside crashes, also known as right-angle or T-bone collisions, rose 30 percent, from 81 to 106 during that time frame. Traffic specialists say broadside collisions are especially dangerous because the sides are the most vulnerable areas of cars.

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