In Favor of Red Light Cameras

RED LIGHT CAMERAS -- (Senate - September 04, 2001) 
Harry Reid, (D) Senator, NV

"I want to bring to the Senate's attention the promise of something I think is in keeping with what I believe is the direction law enforcement should go. That is photo enforcement of traffic laws.

Each year there are about 2,000 deaths and probably about 250,000 injuries in crashes involving motorists who ignore red lights. More than half of these deaths are pedestrians or passengers in other vehicles who are hit by these people who run the red lights. Between 1992 and 1998, about 1.5 million people were injured in these accidents. It is easy for us to talk about injuries as compared to deaths; maybe they had a broken arm, maybe a whiplash. But lots of these people are confined to wheelchairs. Lots of these people are injured irreparably. They have been hurt so bad their life is never going to be the same, as a result of people trying to save the second or two running a red light.

We have all witnessed it. Probably, we have truthfully all run a red light or two. The signal changes to yellow and vehicles continue to pass through the intersection with little hesitation. The light turns red and one or two more cars blow past in a hurry, speeding through intersections until the last possible second. Unfortunately, experience has taught us that we can get away with it.

For example, there are about a thousand intersections with traffic signals in the greater Las Vegas area. Odds are very good that the police won't be watching when we drive through an intersection a little too late. Nevadans have paid a high price for this daredevil driving. Las Vegas ranks 12th in the Nation in deaths attributed to motorists running red lights.

I can't help but think that Las Vegas streets, as well as streets nationwide, would be a lot safer if there were consequences for running red lights. What if there were a traffic officer at every intersection, all 1,000 intersections where there are red lights in Las Vegas? Let's say there was a traffic officer, or at least that were a possibility. The District of Columbia found out that they can do that. In 1999--and I have spoken to the chief as late as this morning--the District began using cameras to catch motorists running red lights. Thirty other districts in the country have similar laws.

For those unfamiliar with photo enforcement, most use cameras after the light has turned red. A photo of the infraction or violation is taken and later mailed to the red light runner or the address that corresponds to the license plate.

With the stepped up enforcement, motorists in the District of Columbia running red lights may have saved a minute or two, but they have not been getting away with it. Since the District began using cameras , the number of motorists running red lights--I talked to the chief this morning--is down 57 percent from 1999, when they were installed. They don't have them at all intersections, but drivers think they might. So people running red lights has dropped almost 60 percent.

Think of the people who are not in wheelchairs. Think of the people who have not had to go to the hospital. Think of the lives saved as a result. In a report released in April of this year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety state that camera enforcement has changed drivers' behavior and may have prevented collisions and injury in car accidents. That is a no-brainer. The number of crashes at intersections with traffic signals has dropped. Front-end and side injury collisions, most commonly associated with red light running, fell as well.

Most surprising is that drivers' behavior changed throughout the city, and not just at intersections with cameras . Even though only 39 of the District of Columbia's signals were equipped with cameras --the red lights-- traffic violations have dropped at all city intersections. Enforcement is changing the way the residents drive. They are better off for it. We all are.

Nationwide, there have been significantly fewer front-end and side collisions following the introduction of camera enforcement. Nine States have either granted use of cameras statewide or are allowing them. The data makes a compelling case for widespread cameras . Photo enforcement of traffic laws helps catch and identify lawbreakers and serves as a deterrent for reckless drivers.

The sad truth is that most drivers obey traffic laws not because they will prevent crashes or save lives--although that is what some say--but because they believe there is a real chance they might be caught and fined. That is why everybody slows down when a police car is nearby. When enforcement is present, accidents fall.

I am sorry to report that in its 1999 session the Nevada Legislature passed a bill banning the use of cameras to enforce traffic laws, citing concern over government intrusion.

On this date, I am writing a letter to the State of Nevada, along with the majority leader of the Senate, telling them to reconsider that. I hope they do. I think it is wrong. I think the legislators in Nevada and all around the country should take a second look at the promise this technology holds, if for no other reason than the powerless lobbying organization that believes strongly in this.

What is this lobbying organization that has very little power? It is called the American Trauma Society. I am sure the Presiding Officer has met with them. I have gone to their facilities and seen the people who have had these terrible head injuries. Most are traffic related; many are people having run red lights.

On this issue, the American Trauma Society, composed of emergency room personnel, would like to have fewer customers, and they point to studies that cameras reduce violations by 40 percent.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes a lot of things, dropped its opposition to red light cameras because they recognize there is a limit even to what they can go to. They believe this is something that helps keep highways safe. With a million crashes at intersections each year, causing 250,000 injuries and 2,000 deaths, the carnage is very bad.

Why do I raise this issue? Because changing driver behavior in a meaningful way will save lives. Studies show that more than 90 percent of Americans believe red light running is dangerous. The vast majority of citizens and law enforcement officials support the use of photo enforcement to stop red light running. Some may not agree. They say this is ``big brother.''

Going back to when I was city attorney, we needed modern law enforcement methods to keep up with criminals and also those accused. It doesn't matter whether it is cop or a camera; it is getting caught that counts. There are consequences for breaking traffic laws. Ensuring the safety and well-being of America's families and neighborhoods should be one of our top priorities. Photo enforcement supports this priority in a way that is constitutionally effective and proven free of bias.

I want those 30 jurisdictions, including the chief in the District of Columbia, to know I am going to do what I can to support his position and not go off on some side issue or side street issue saying this is ``big brother'' or that Orwellians are coming after us."

Source - The Congressional Record