Greater City Providence

Speaking of “Fair…” Red light cameras

In the last post there was some debate about the use of the word “fair” when it comes to allocating surface transportation resources between automobiles, cars, bikes, and other users.

Now, the NBC 10 I-Team asks if Providence’s red light cameras are fair to those who are driving too far above the posted speed limit to stop in time for the red light.

Even though the timing of the yellow to red lights is legal, many say it’s unfair – especially when it’s obvious that many, if not most, people don’t obey a 25 mph speed limit.

Well here is a video the I-Team and anyone else who is unsure about the fairness of punishing someone for breaking the law might want to watch. Warning, parts of this video may disturbing to some.

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • I admitted drive above the 25 mph posted speed limit fairly regularly, but not really a majority of the time. I also regularly drive through intersections that have red light cameras. It’s my experience that if you are driving so far above the posted speed limit that you cannot stop in time, you are driving too fast and deserve the ticket. In fact, you are probably driving so fast that it is not safe for even you. While it is safe to drive above the speed limit in dry weather, there is a point where it is unsafe, even if you think you have control over the vehicle.

    That said, I do my best to drive 25 in the city because people are generally unpredictable. I have never had my picture taken at one of those lights, and I drive through at least one of those intersections every day.

  • Well, once again, this isn’t really about “fair.” Its how people want the law to work. If people generally want red light cameras to act as enforcement of red lights and as a proxy for enforcement of speeding drivers then that is what the law should probably look like.

    “Its not fair,” just muddies the waters. Is it “fair” to pedestrians for drivers to be speeding? Is it “fair” to ticket speeding drivers for running red lights because they can’t stop in 3 or 4 seconds? It doesn’t really matter what is “fair” if you can even come to an objective construction of it.

    I think it is perfectly reasonable to say that if you get hit by the camera you get a ticket whether it is because you are speeding or blowing through a light (assuming you can appeal it in situations like the right hand turn mentioned in the article). The “fairness” is not really important. What is important is that you come to a workable consensus on how you want the law to operate.

  • You can appeal the ticket you get but it only works if you have some good reasons, like making a right turn on red if the intersection is not posted or if there is no sign warning that there is a red light camera at the intersection.

    When you get the ticket, they send you pictures of the offense and a link where you can view a video of it. I have watched people appeal them on Caught in Providence and Judge Caprio proudly showed the video and denied the appeal.

    It is an issue of fairness, but in this case, it is perfectly fair to assume that if you break the law, you will face consequences. Driving over the speed limit and/or running a red light are both breaking the law.

  • Traffic laws are not fair in the same way that the teacher in elementary school making everyone put their heads on their desk because one or two students are acting out isn’t fair.

    In a perfect world the speed limit could be “reasonable and prudent” in a perfect world every intersection would allow a right on red after stopping, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t need red lights.

    But the world is not perfect, when the speed limit is 25mph some people think they can drive 35mph. When you say people can turn on red after stopping, there are those who don’t stop and don’t look, they just slide on red (I’m talking to you people coming off 95 south every morning, hello, look right! I’m standing right here!).

    One of the blessings of all this snow this year, drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians all started acting human. There was a “we’re all in this together,” attitude about navigating the streets. Unfortunately our imperfect world forces us to legislate an approximation of that attitude upon the masses most of the time.

  • Wait. Weren’t all those accidents we just saw in the video caught by camera? How did they not prevent those? Just a thought.

  • Red light cameras reduce, not eliminate, the incidence of collisions at intersections where they are installed. Also, I think many of those were traffic monitoring cameras, not cameras that capture license plates and issue tickets, though some may be.

  • If they were from cameras that issue tickets, they would not have viewed the whole intersection like that. They would have been focused on a specific lane in a specific direction, and you would have been able to read license plates and see more detail of single cars.

    Also, if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that the car running the light is not always coming from the same place where the camera is installed (which would be the case if they were red light cameras).

  • First, let me preface by saying I’m at work and can’t listen to the video so if my comments are covered in it, just ignore me…

    There have been multiple studies that show that red light cameras are no more effective than simply increasing the amount of time the light is yellow. It’s a lot cheaper to re-time intersections than it is to buy cameras, install them, pay someone to monitor them, send out tickets, etc, etc. However, there is a huge financial incentive for outside contractors to come to a city and say, “We’ll install cameras, blah, blah, and take a cut of the tickets.” There’s no financial incentive to re-time the lights, so we get red light cameras.

  • No, the video does not say anything about that. What the video does do is give statistics for how much accidents have decreased since the cameras were installed.

    I don’t think that would help in a place like Providence where people pretend yellow lights me slam on the gas and fly through it (even at intersections where there are no cameras).

    Honestly, if the red light cameras did not give the city a net gain in money, I would agree that we should get rid of them. But as long as they keep giving the city money, why not? The people who fail to stop at red lights deserve it. The people who drive too far over the speed limit to be able to stop in enough time deserve it.

  • Infrastructurist looked at conflicting studies on traffic cameras. Most recently The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety claims they save lives and prevent accidents, other studies say no. Of course each study has differing methodologies so it is difficult to compare them.

    Having not done my own study, I would randomly speculate that a longer yellow phase would have drivers lulled into confidence by the yellow light, thinking it an extension of the green phase. I envision a great increase in the numbers of people speeding up on yellow feeling confidant that with a longer cycle, “they can make it.” Of course that is just my wild speculation.

    There are formulas to follow for how long a light should be, I cannot confirm that RIDOT and the City’s Traffic Engineering follow those formulas, but they exist. I don’t drive a lot, but I seem to have no trouble recognizing yellow lights and stopping when I see them.

  • I’ve seen some pretty bad accidents in Providence and seen many near misses.

    Red light cameras are a revenue enhancement tool only. They do not improve safety.

  • Tony, that’s purely based on your observation in a limited scope. One needs to look at the larger picture and take historic accident data from those intersections where they installed the red light cameras and compare it to data since the cameras were installed. I have a feeling if there was an uptick in accidents, it would have been immediately after the cameras were installed and involved more rear ending than accidents in the intersection (T-boning, which is more dangerous for the people in the vehicle than a rear end collision).

    I would love to see the data from the city on those intersections that have the cameras and see what the true answer is.

    And I agree with Jef that if people realized the yellow lights were longer than usually, they’d start growing a confidence in their ability to make it through the intersection before the light changed. The only time you should be entering an intersection when the light is yellow is when it is too dangerous for you to stop your car. If you are obeying the speed limit, that means only when you are at the intersection and the light has just turned yellow. Any other time, if you see the yellow light, you should stop.

  • Today, Channel 10 has a story about the benefits of red light cameras.

    There’s this torturous paragraph in the middle of the written report:

    “For 2007 at Service Road No. 8 and Broadway, went down from 3,000 to 1,000, and violations went from 28 crashes and 13 injuries. In 2009, only three crashes and only one injury,” Rocchio said.

    Which I think means, at Broadway and Service Road 8, crashes dropped from 28 to 3 and injuries from 13 to 1.

    Now, if only they could get some traffic calming and better timing on the walk lights up there.

  • Now Channel 10 has switched back, red light cameras are unfair.

    Channel 10 teases a story which is scheduled to air tonight at 6pm:

    The study found that red light cameras are unfair, and costly to motorists.

    The I-Team found that in busy intersections in Providence, the yellow light time was reduced, increasing the possibility of motorists running a red light.

    But the new study, as well as the I-Team, found there is no correlation between traffic safety and the red light cameras.

    And, the red light cameras, operated by a private company, are not cost efficient to the taxpayer.

    Meanwhile, one of the related links on this story’s page is the link I posted above from February of this year; I-Team: Red-light cameras save lives

    That story sites a marked reduction in crashes and injuries at Broadway and the Service Road from 2007 to 2009, but apparently there is a new study that refutes that evidence.

    It also sites a RIDOT spokesperson that says that yellow light timing is a national standard. The tease for tonight seems to suggest that the camera lights have different timing than other lights in the city.

    I am interested to learn more about the cost issue. I’ve heard said that the city has “lost $1 million” on the cameras. I can’t imagine that $1 million has been removed from our coffers and disappeared but assume that the outside company has been paid $1 million from the generated revenue and some see that as money “lost” by the city.

    I still maintain what is most “costly and unfair” is getting hit buy a car running a red light.

  • I looked at various studies on this when the original bill allowing these cameras was heard. I think they generally showed that serious crashes (traffic colliding from different directions) are reduced somewhat though perhaps there were more rear-enders. So I thought it was worth a try and testified for the bill, especially being a bicyclist and more frequent pedestrian than most, hence more vulnerable to bad motorist behavior.

    I saw the current Channel 10 news clip, and found it not very helpful as it had no quantitative info related to cost, revenue, safety, or even the length of the yellow signal. Thats all too often a limitation of TV news.

  • It is amusing that Channel 10 had one position during Feb sweeps, and a completely different one during November sweeps! Playing both ends from the middle, I guess. Or they fired the person who handles continuity.

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