Photo courtesy of IIHS.

Photo courtesy of IIHS.

Red-light camera programs continue to generate public controversy, but a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety concludes that such programs in 79 large U.S. cities saved nearly 1,300 lives through 2014.

IIHS researchers contend that eliminating red-light camera programs costs lives, with the rate of fatal red-light-running crashes rising 30% in cities that have scrapped the programs.

Red-light-running crashes resulted in 709 deaths in 2014 and an estimated 126,000 injuries, according to IIHS. Drivers who ran a red light represent a minority of the people who died in these crashes. Most of those killed were occupants of other vehicles, passengers in vehicles running red lights, pedestrians, or bicyclists.

“Red light cameras are valuable enforcement tools that prevent many dangerous intersection crashes,” said IIHS President Adrian Lund. “This study confirms that cameras reduce fatal crashes and for the first time quantifies the effect that ending these programs has on safety.”

IIHS researchers looked at the 57 cities of 200,000 or more people that activated cameras between 1992 and 2014 and didn’t shut them off. They compared the trends in annual per-capita fatal crash rates in those cities with the trends in 33 cities that never had cameras.

After accounting for the effects of population density and unemployment rates, the researchers found there were 21% fewer fatal red-light-running crashes per capita in cities with cameras than would have occurred without cameras and 14% fewer fatal crashes of all types at signalized intersections.

As expected, IIHS noted, the cameras have their biggest effect on red-light-running crashes. However, the analysis shows they reduce other types of fatal intersection crashes as well. Drivers may be more cautious in general when they know there are cameras capturing images of their driving. In addition, red-light-running fatalities may be undercounted.

When applied to all 57 cities, as well as 22 cities that started and ended camera programs, the lower intersection crash rate translates into 1,296 lives saved during the years the cameras were operational, according to the study.

The second part of the study focused on 14 cities that terminated their camera programs between 2010 and 2014. The researchers compared trends in annual crash rates in those cities with trends in crash rates in 29 cities in the same regions that continued their camera programs. The fatal red-light-running crash rate was 30% higher in cities that turned off cameras than it would have been if the cameras remained on. The rate of fatal crashes at signalized intersections was 16% higher, the study found.

The 16% increase translates into an estimated 63 deaths that would have been prevented in the 14 cities if they had not turned off their cameras, IIHS said.

“Debates over automated enforcement often center on the hassle of getting a ticket and paying a fine,” Lund said. “It's important to remember that there are hundreds of people walking around who wouldn’t be here if not for red light cameras. Sadly, there are 63 families who are missing a loved one because these life-saving programs were canceled.”

Nonetheless, a level of public distrust of red-light camera programs persists, with some critics arguing that their primary purpose is to raise city revenue. A scandal in Chicago has helped fuel such skepticism.

To download the full IIHS study, click here.

To view a list of state laws regarding red-light cameras, click here.