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The increasing global population is creating many difficulties for current transportation systems. With a growing population, the number of registered motor vehicles increases every year, and the rate of increase of police officers to enforce traffic laws is not increasing at the same rate. Also with a growing number of vehicles on the road, two of the most common and problematic traffic violations, running red traffic signals and speeding, are becoming increasingly frequent and fatal. Automatic, remote monitoring systems offer an effective way of enforcing red signal running and speeding, but ethical and operational questions currently prevent a nationwide deployment.

Traffic signals are one of the most common forms of traffic control, but unfortunately they are not always obeyed. Running red signals has always been a problem ever since traffic signals were invented, but the ever increasing number of vehicles on the road today has caused the problem to get out of hand. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 900 people die every year and nearly 200,000 people are injured in crashes that involve running traffic signals. Half of these deaths are pedestrians or occupants of another vehicle that was struck by a red light runner. It is the most frequently reported urban crash, and according to a study in 1991, accounts for 22 percent of all crashes.(1)

The current enforcement methods are becoming increasingly insufficient. Traditional enforcement methods involve an officer performing a traffic stop on the offender. However this process usually involves the officer passing through the intersection as well. This endangers the officer, pedestrians, and other vehicles. Additionally, police are unable to be everywhere at once, which allows for a large window for offenders to escape.(1)

As a result of this growing problem, red signal cameras have been developed in the United States to allow a greater ability for cities to enforce traffic laws. Similar systems have been in place since the 1970s in Europe, but they were first implemented in the United States in New York, NY in 1992.(2) Currently Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia all have legislation that allows the deployment of camera systems on a municipal level.(3) More states are soon expected to pass similar legislation.

The operation of a red signal camera system is critical to the successful implementation. The operation of a given system is very similar from city to city. Essentially, when a vehicle enters an intersection after a red signal has been indicated, a camera will take a photograph of the vehicle’s license plate and a ticket will be mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle. There are a number of different areas in which design parameters are left to a city. For one, the system needs a definition of what running a red light is. In Fairfax, VA, red light cameras are timed to be activated .4 seconds after a red signal.(2) Additionally, a minimum speed requirement needs to be set. This prevents tickets from being mailed to people who make legal right turns during a red signal. In the case of Fairfax, VA, 15 mph is the design standard.(2) Thirdly, an adequate and inexpensive indicator needs to be designed to detect when someone has entered an intersection. Current systems utilize induction loops installed in the pavement to detect whether someone has entered an intersection illegally.(2) Finally, exactly what cameras take a photograph of must be determined. In general, cameras generally will take photos of the rear license plate of the vehicle. This is because many states don’t require a license plate on the front of the vehicle. Additionally, it prevents the cameras from taking photos of the occupants of the vehicle.

Almost as important as the operation of a traffic signal monitoring system is the method of deployment of a system. One of the first widespread systems was deployed in Fairfax, Virginia in 1997, and their method of deployment serves as a good indication of how to go about initiating an automated traffic enforcement program. The implementation of a system generally starts months in advance of any sort of enforcement. In Fairfax, numerous publicity campaigns were implemented to ensure that the public was well-aware of the new enforcement methods. Such publicity methods included mailing postcards to houses, deployment of road signs, and full disclosure to the media.(2) After the publicity campaign, enforcement began on a warning only basis. Violators received warnings and further description of the impending system in the mail. Only after all of these warning systems were implemented did the first photo enforcement methods begin. But it is important to note that receiving a ticket in the mail from a red-light camera is considered different that receiving a formal citation from an officer. Unlike formal citations, tickets from these traffic signal cameras were only $50 and did not count toward any driver license restrictions.(2) While actual fines and results of those fines differ from state to state, Fairfax’s implementation of the system serves as a good method of how a traffic signal camera system should be deployed.

The immediate benefits of these systems are clear and far reaching. In communities across the country, automated traffic control systems have caused a decrease in fatalities and red light running. Scottsdale, AZ saw a 62% reduction in violations, Los Angeles, CA saw a 75% reduction, the District of Columbia saw a 56% decrease in violations, Fort Mead, FL saw a 50% reduction, Jackson, Mississippi saw an 83% reduction, and New York, NY saw a 34% reduction. With all of these clear indicators of success, right angle collisions as a result of red light running went down at most of these sites as well.(3) These statistics indicate that red light camera systems have a positive benefit wherever they are deployed, whether urban or rural.

The public tends to support red light cameras as well. Surveys from across the country indicate a 60-80% approval rate wherever samples are taken. The American Automobile Association alone indicated that their members favored the new systems with an overwhelming 77%.(3)

With such a popular reception and proven results from automated red signal enforcement methods, many states are now considering automated speeding enforcement methods through the use of photo radar. Similar to the problems with red signal running, speeding causes many fatalities and wrecks. Photo radar works on the same principle as the red signal cameras. A radar gun is mounted somewhere near traffic. This could be on a span wire, hidden behind bushes, or mounted on a police cruiser. If a driver passes the radar detector significantly over the speed limit, a photo is taken of the license plate, and a ticket is mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle.

Automatic speed enforcement systems are commonly used in Britain and are receiving popular support. British photo radar systems are bright yellow and give a clear indication to a driver that a camera is coming. These camera systems are so popular in Britain, that not only do people want more of the cameras installed; they want them to be more discrete. A 49% decrease in traffic fatalities in Britain has resulted in a full 80% of Londoners supporting the system(4), and a greater deployment is currently planned. Taking a cue from the British systems, similar speed monitoring systems are making an appearance in the United States. One of the first speed monitoring systems in the United States appeared in Washington, D.C. in 2001. Mobile car-mounted systems have been deployed around the city, and have caused a decrease in speeding violations.5 Additionally, the United States National Park Service has started using the system to enforce speed limits on National Park roads.(6)

The American response to the system was not nearly as popular the British. Many complain that these automated systems exist more to generate revenue than promote safety. The National Motorist Association describes the National Park Service monitoring system as merely a means of generating revenue for a cash-strapped department.(6) These complaints are rightfully justified. Studies in Britain indicate that while popular, the speed monitoring systems are not fail safe. A study in the United Kingdom indicates that many drivers pay fines on speeding tickets in which they were not at fault.(7) Another study in the United States shows that most of the money that is received from tickets goes to the manufacturer of the cameras3 rather than the state, and allegations that contractors are deliberately mistiming cameras to obtain more positives are beginning to arise.

Additionally, numerous ethical concerns arise with both red signal cameras and photo radar systems. The most obvious of which is how the ticket is issued. Currently a ticket is mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle, but what if the driver of the vehicle was borrowing the car from the registered owner? Additionally, is mailing a ticket to someone through an automatic computer controlled system a fair and consistent means of distributing citations? Unfortunately, neither of these problems has been thoroughly addressed, and this allows for potential problems in the implementation of such systems.

Remote traffic monitoring systems serve as an excellent method of enforcing traffic laws in a more efficient manner. Red light cameras and radar cameras have proven themselves as an effective means of promoting safety, and are relatively inexpensive to deploy. There are still many ethical and operational problems however that need to be dealt with before a nationwide deployment can occur. Problems aside, the concept of automated traffic control systems is one that needs to be pursued in order to maintain safety on today’s overcrowded streets.

1) “IIHS | Q&A: Red Light Running.” Highway Loss Data Institute. 26 Mar. 2004. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. 11 Nov. 2004

2) Farmer, Charles. Feldman, Amy. Williams, Allan. Retting, Richard. “Evolution of Red Light Camera Enforcement in Fairfax, Va., USA”. Highway Robbery. Aug 1999. Institute of Transportation Engineers. 11 Nov. 2004.

3) Maccubbin, Robert. Staples, Barbara. Salwin, Barbara. "Automated Enforcement of Traffic Signals." U.S. Department of Transportation Intelligent Transportation Systems. 13 Aug. 2001. United States Department of Transportation. 11 Nov. 2004 .

4) Williams, David. “Londoners Want More Speed Cams.” This is London. 4 Nov. 2002. The Evening Standard. 11 Nov. 2004

5) Williams, Clarence. “New D.C. Cameras, More Tickets.” The Washington Post. 6 Aug. 2001. The Washington Post. 11 Nov 2004

6) “U.S. National Park Service to Use Photo Radar.” Drivers.com. 8 Nov 2000. Transportation Communications Newsletter. 11 Nov 2004

7) “Speed Cameras ‘Catch Innocent Drivers.’” BBC News. 5 Jun 2001. BBC