Red light cameras: safety measure or Big Brother-like cash cow?

Credit: Joe Ravi via Wiki Commons

Remember the days when you could drive through a yellow light without worrying about that dreaded photo flash?

In most cities, those days are long gone as red light cameras have become increasingly popular and popped up in major intersections from coast to coast.

Red camera advocates say the cameras are safety devices intended to deter people from running red lights, not cash cows.

But time has shown that the cameras do indeed bring in a major revenue flow. In the city of Chicago, fine revenue generated by the cameras totaled nearly $45 million in 2008, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Now, Chicago officials are proposing to use the cameras to monitor the speed of drivers in school safety zones.

Once again, proponents of the measure, like Mayor Rahm Emanuel, are painting the effort as a safety measure, but as the Chicago Tribune pointed out in a Thursday article, it comes at the same time as major City Hall budget woes.

“I think it’s piling on. It’s really kind of draconian,” said Ald. Joe Moore, 49th. “The jury is still out on whether the red-light cameras are effective in terms of safety. … So then it really becomes a revenue-raising tool, rather than a public safety tool, and I think there are more honest ways of raising money.”

Moore has a legitimate point.

In Los Angeles — where the City Council unanimously shut down their red light camera program after controversy surronding the enforcement of the tickets — studies showed that red-light cameras hadn’t improved safety.

And some cities have reported that the cameras can even increase rear-end collisions.

In 2010, The Palm Beach Post reported that “rear-end collisions more than doubled and accidents increased overall in the first 70 days of red-light cameras in West Palm Beach compared to the same period of 2009.” Longer studies have shown similar results in other cities.

But other studies have shown contrasting results.

So let’s be clear. Red light cameras may help. But they may not.

And until studies are more conclusive about their effectiveness, taking the next step to use these cameras to monitor speed seems like a cash-generating plan, plain and simple.

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