Studies inconclusive about cameras' effectiveness

Nearly 100 years after the practice was perfected in Massachusetts, the use of cameras to catch scofflaw motorists remains controversial and relatively uncommon in the United States.

No one disputes that driving can be dangerous or that running red lights or stop signs makes it more so. Motor-vehicle crashes are the leading killer of Americans ages 3-34, and roughly 40 percent of all crashes (fatal and otherwise) take place at intersections, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Running red lights accounted for about 850 (9 percent) of the roughly 9,200 deaths in intersection-related crashes around the country in 2005, according to the National Highway Administration.

Whether cameras can help reduce crashes remains an open question. There are studies showing that the use of red-light cameras reduces crashes, studies showing they don’t and studies refuting other studies.

As of last month, red-light cameras were used in 26 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group funded by insurance companies. While the cameras are relatively common in Arizona, California, Florida and Illinois, as few as a single town actually use the cameras in some of those states, including Blackstone, the only one in Massachusetts.

Using cameras to nab speeders is even less popular, although the technology has been around longer. According to an article on the National Conference of State Legislatures, a system with cameras linked to a stopwatch was used in Massachusetts as early as 1910 and upheld by that state’s Supreme Court, which concluded the mechanized system was actually more reliable than the “fluctuations of human agencies.”

There are many companies making red-light camera systems, and some systems actually control the signal to halt cross-traffic when it detects a car running a red light.

Motorist groups often complain that automated enforcement is just another way for cities and towns to rake in revenue through traffic tickets; however, the Insurance Institute notes that many systems don’t even break even and actually cost money to run.

On the other hand, rigging red-light cameras resulted in a widespread scandal earlier this year in Italy, where officials apparently conspired to reduce the timing of yellow caution lights to trap more motorists, according to various news reports.