It’s time for automated traffic enforcement

Print More
Mural of Edgar Santa Cruz and Rosey at Lincoln Library

Just before 6 p.m. on Dec. 22, 2022, Edgar Santa Cruz and his dog, Rosey, were struck by a car and killed crossing South Goodman at Park Avenue. The driver ignored a red light, striking Santa Cruz in the crosswalk.

While any needless death should prompt introspection, Santa Cruz was a treasured member of the community and known to many. His death spurred a renewed focus on street safety. On the staff of Foodlink when struck, he’d spent the previous five years working at Cameron Community Ministries. He was a friend of City Councilmember and Foodlink staffer Mitch Gruber and community mobility advocate Evan Lowenstein.

These two were joined by James Dietz of Reconnect Rochester and Edward Erfurt of Strong Towns on Connections with Evan Dawson to explore street safety on Dec. 13, 2023. At Lowenstein’s initiative, the Strong Towns Action Lab held a Crash Analysis Studio on December 15, 2023. The recently released report is here.

Has the time come for automated enforcement?

From 2013 to 2023, 3,200 pedestrians and bicyclists were killed or injured by cars and trucks traveling Rochester’s streets, nearly 300 per year. Eighty died. The City of Rochester’s Active Transportation Plan notes that on a per capita basis, Rochester’s crashes exceeded those in Buffalo, Syracuse and Yonkers. On fatal crashes, we top the list.

The causes of traffic accidents and the resulting injury and death are many. It is easy to succumb to the temptation to switch stations (because we’ve heard way too much Taylor Swift), to check our phone (who just sent that text?), to search for a different podcast (something less depressing, please) or open ourselves to another distraction. Our cars are more complicated, too (I’m looking at you, Elon Musk) and the acceleration is just so delicious.

Bad habits and culture matter, too. A share of accidents can also be chalked up to speeding and ignoring traffic signals The National Safety Council reports that 36 percent of traffic fatalities in New York State in 2021 were speed related, two-thirds on secondary roads.

The National Safety Council reports that 36 percent of traffic fatalities in New York State in 2021 were speed related, two-thirds on secondary roads. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimates that 28 percent of fatalities at signalized intersections are caused by red light running. These are not independent statistics-many red light runners are also speeding. Nor do all fatalities occur at intersections. But together they tell a tale: Reckless driving kills.

Traffic laws are difficult and costly to police. Enforcement of speeders on limited access highways (such as the New York State Thruway) may be efficiently accomplished with stationary patrols supported by radar. Reckless driving on secondary roads (such as Jefferson Road or Lake Avenue) is more challenging to control. A driver who runs a red light will be caught only if the violation occurs in sight of an officer in a patrol vehicle. Even when the crime is observed, giving chase to a scofflaw can endanger the lives of innocents.

Photo: Derek Jensen (Tysto), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Enforcement can be risky. Traffic stops, by creating a confrontation between drivers and police, can themselves be dangerous. The New York Times reported in 2021 that over 400 drivers or passengers died at the hands of police in the previous five years nationwide. Traffic stops are also susceptible to racial bias among the members of law enforcement. Widely documented incidents of violent encounters between police and people of color have confirmed the risk of “driving while black.” Traffic stops also pose a danger to officers. The same New York Times story reported that 10 officers were killed in traffic stops in the previous year.

Let’s take a fresh look at red light cameras

The worldwide use of cameras to automate traffic enforcement began with speed cameras in Australia and the United Kingdom around 1985. Two Arizona communities-Peoria and Paradise Valley-were the first in the U.S. to install speed cameras in 1987. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports speed camera implementation in 211 U.S. communities in 20 states and the District of Columbia during 2023.

New York City was a pioneer in the use of red light cameras. Authorized by the state Legislature in 1988 and begun in 1994, this program is limited to 150 active locations. IIHS counts 338 U.S. communities with current red light camera programs.

Most automated enforcement programs rely on license plate readers to identify the vehicle, not the driver. A member of law enforcement normally reviews the evidence captured on camera, a notice of violation is mailed to the vehicle owner, and a fine is imposed. As a civil penalty, the notice of violation is not reported to the owner’s insurance company nor does it become part of the driver’s operating record. No points are accrued on the driver’s license. Nonpayment can result in impoundment of the vehicle but not license revocation.

Rochester’s red light camera experiment

New York State approved the use of red light cameras in Rochester in 2009. On Oct. 25, 2010, the city of Rochester installed camera at three intersections-State and Jay streets, Broadway and Alexander streets, and North Street and Clifford Avenue. Eventually there were 48 cameras at 32 locations (see listing below). Potential locations (207) were identified based on traffic volume and accident history. Final locations (48) were selected by measuring the incidence of red light violations during a 12-hour test period.

Red light cameras are integrated with the traffic signal to monitor a vehicle’s transit through an intersection. Photographs and videos document the date, time, vehicle speed and elapsed time from the light turning red to the time the car clears the intersection.

Did red light cameras make Rochester’s roads safer?

SRF Associates, a Rochester-based transportation planning and engineering consultant (now part of Passero), was selected to evaluate the impact of the cameras in Rochester. All crashes at the red light camera intersections from 2007 through 2014 were included in the study. Their findings were unambiguous: The rate of total crashes per year involving running red lights (“disregard of traffic control device”) fell more than half. Crashes involving injury fell 60 percent.

Many feared that rear-end crashes would increase as some cars might brake suddenly, to avoid a fine, causing a collision with a following car, but total rear-end crashes fell by 17 percent.

Not every intersection showed the same result. Eight intersections showed an increase in the crash rate, although the results reported by intersection are probably not statistically significant. Had the program continued, more data may have shed light on these anomalies. In aggregate, the data strongly supported the program.

The chart below illustrates Rochester’s RLC experience before and after the cameras were installed.

Unpopular program ended in 2016

Despite these apparently positive outcomes, the program was unpopular. Many city residents became convinced that the program was simply designed to earn money for the city and the contractor. And it was profitable, earning the city as much as $1 million per year, beyond the cost of operating the cameras.

Then-mayor Lovely Warren read the SRF report differently too, finding that “the results were inconclusive at best. Some of the intersections with cameras did see a decrease in red light violations, others saw an increase, and some stayed the same.” She was also troubled that total red light violations were higher in ZIP codes with the city’s highest rates of poverty. City Council agreed, and the program ended on Dec. 31, 2016.

It would be instructive to conduct a study of crash & injury incidence for the period following the removal of the cameras.

New York City’s experience

Originally authorized by the state Legislature in 1988, Section 1111-a of the Vehicle and Traffic Law allows New York City to deploy up to 150 red light cameras. The program began in 1994.

The Legislature authorized New York City’s speed cameras in 2013 as a pilot program in 20 school speed zones. The program was expanded to 140 zones in 2014 during school hours only, then to 750 zones in 2019, operating between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. on weekdays.

In 2022, the city received permission to operate the cameras 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. Total cameras in use is expected to reach 2,220. Tickets are issued when the vehicle is traveling more than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit.

Just like the Rochester’s RLC program, the owner of the vehicle is issued a notice of violation, a civil penalty that does not affect the record of the vehicle’s driver. Just like the Rochester’s RLC program, the owner of the vehicle is issued a notice of violation, a civil penalty that does not affect the record of the vehicle’s driver. NYC DOT reports a 73 percent reduction in speeding at fixed camera locations from inception through December 2021.

RLC effectiveness

Looking just at the RLC locations, New York City experienced 724 right-angle crashes with injuries each year in the three years preceding the beginning of its RLC program in 1994. By 2017-2019, annual crashes with injuries had fallen to 322, a 55 percent reduction. The 2020 figures were even more favorable, although the economic slowdown and reduced traffic associated with the pandemic might be a factor. Moreover, the National Highway Safety Administration changed its reporting criteria in 2019, rendering data comparisons problematic.

Speed camera impact

Unsurprisingly, the number of violation notices issued in New York City has increased dramatically as the number of cameras, the days of operation and hours of operation have exploded. Annual hours of active speed camera enforcement citywide grew from about 156,000 in 2014 to roughly 6.6 million in 2022.

The rapid expansion of the program, concurrent addition of new safety programs and the economic slowdown imposed by the pandemic make it difficult to draw conclusions about program impact. The table below compares pre-COVID 2018 with 2020. The “control corridor” injury reductions (except for cyclists) are attributable to the pandemic. Injuries fell more in the camera corridors. The table is published in the 2022 Automated Speed Enforcement Report. More recent data have not yet been published.

What we learn from research

The impact of RLCs and speed/red light cameras on crashes and injuries has been extensively studied over the last 20 years, including before/after studies where cities (like Rochester) have discontinued their use of cameras. (Speed/red light cameras monitor both vehicle speed and the location of a vehicle when the traffic light turns red. This dual function makes them a more effective tool than one that detects only red light running.)

Readers who are interested in the range of methodologies, data sources and results should consult a detailed review published in Accident Analysis & Prevention in 2019. Pooling data gathered by a large number of studies, the authors report that RLCs reduced total crashes 12 percent and the most-dangerous right-angle collisions by twice that. Right-angle collisions with injuries fell by a third. Rear-end collisions rose slightly, and rear-end collisions with injuries rose 14 percent.

SRLCs reduced total crashes by 17 percent and crashes with injuries by 25 percent. Side-impact collisions (t-bone crashes) are far more deadly than rear-end collisions. The death rate from rear impacts is one third that of right-angle crashes.

Photo: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

There’s also a spillover effect: Many researchers have demonstrated that having RLCs or SRLCs at some intersections influences driver behavior at nearby intersections, suggesting that enforcement can have a cultural impact and reduce death and injury beyond the targeted intersections.

How to revive a “wildly unpopular” program

In canceling the red light camera program, Mayor Warren declared it to be “wildly unpopular.”

That’s a puzzle, as running red lights is also unpopular. Nearly half of respondents to the 2021 AAA Traffic Safety Culture Index believe that running red lights is “extremely dangerous,” and 29 percent find it “moderately dangerous.” Unlike speeding-which is much more acceptable-94 percent of respondents believe that running red lights would meet with disapproval by people important to them. A 2009 poll from Public Opinion Research found significant support for the use of red light cameras: The 69 percent support for cameras spanned demographic and affinity groups.

So, if drivers generally think red light running is dangerous and scorned, why was Rochester’s program perceived to be unpopular? And how should a new program be different?

Mitch Gruber

RLCs can’t be just a “cash grab”

City Councilmember Gruber insists that a renewed RLC program must focus exclusively on safety. Any sense that the cameras are simply a way to raise money (a “cash grab” in Gruber’s words) will diminish its effectiveness. Revenue from the violations should be channeled toward better street design and safety-focused street improvements, he urges.

Privacy should be protected

Camera-based enforcement raises the specter of China’s surveillance state in Xinjiang Province. Gruber opposes a program that might employ facial recognition, relying instead on license plate scans. Many automated enforcement programs stipulate that the data collected cannot be used for another purpose, although skeptics might wonder if such a claim could be enforced.

Public disorder makes us all feel unsafe

Red light runners are convinced that they won’t get caught-and with good reason. The Rochester Police Department is “critically understaffed,” says Chief David Smith. Homicides, non-fatal shootings and car thefts are a higher priority than traffic enforcement.

“Most people support law and order,” says Bob Duffy, president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce (and former chief of police, mayor and lieutenant governor).

Maintaining public order “is based on accountability,” he notes. “Red light running is a choice,” and automated enforcement can hold drivers accountable for reckless behavior that endangers others.

Equity and fairness are key to community support

The city’s Active Transportation Plan draws attention to intersections and road corridors that have more severe crashes and pose a higher risk for pedestrians and bicyclists. Risk reduction for the city’s most vulnerable should include investment in street design and effective enforcement of traffic laws. This is particularly important where high injury pedestrian and bicycle corridors occur in areas of concentrated priority populations (above median people of color, above median households without cars, below median household income, above median persons with disabilities). A detailed analysis of street safety for pedestrians and bicyclists appears in the ATP’s Appendix F.

Rochester’s former red light camera program was developed during Duffy’s mayoral administration. He notes that the selection of camera locations was based on traffic volume and collision history and did not target vulnerable populations for more aggressive enforcement.

Streetsblog.NYC reported on a study of speed and red light placement in New York City and concluded that “where they’re located shows no correlation between the number of cameras and the racial demographics of a given community. The camera locations are largely equitable based on racial demographics. The bottom line: cameras, which automatically slap drivers with a $50 ticket for exceeding the speed limit by more than 10 miles per hour, work.”

Echoing a comment from Duffy, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said, “Cameras don’t discriminate. Either you’re speeding or you’re not. This data certainly proves what we’ve been saying all along.”

Street design can be discriminatory

Streetsblog quotes activist Marco Conner DiAquoi, formerly with Transportation Alternatives: “The speed safety camera program in New York City is large and very evenly distributed. … What we see is a distribution that generally lines up with the makeup of New York City and where unsafe streets exist.”

The clause “where unsafe streets exist” is key, Streetsblog writes. As reflected in Rochester’s ATP, investment in street design (which may include eliminating lanes, adding medians, lowering the speed limit, adding protected bikeways, etc.) will go a long way toward reducing speeds and injuries across the city and eliminating a race or class-based enforcement outcome. Rochester’s Street Design Guide lays out the principles of good street design. 

Change behavior through enforcement

Fines should be set to influence behavior, with punitive fines reserved for repeat offenders. First offenders might get away with a warning. Just as conventional speeding tickets are linked to speed, a car that leaves the intersection after braking to 10 mph might receive a light fine, while blowing through the red at 50 mph might be fined severely.

Nor should fines burden people with limited incomes. Department of Environmental Services Commissioner Rich Perrin notes that “one of the ATP recommendations is to coordinate with the city’s Law Department and Rochester Traffic Violations Agency to ensure that traffic fines do not have a disproportionate impact on lower-income motorists.”

Gruber agrees, also noting that fairness demands the ability to plea down a violation. Vehicle owners had no clear path to appeal RLC violations under the previous program.

There are many examples of enforcement regimes across the country. San Francisco has posted an informative survey of RLC enforcement from a range of cities.

Enforcement should be reasonable

Motorists feel unfairly treated if automated enforcement is stricter than in-person enforcement. The goal should be safety, not “zero tolerance” compliance.

■ Most speed cameras are appropriately set to trigger a violation at a speed somewhat above the posted limit, often 10 mph.

■ A motorist should not be penalized if the car stops just over the white line at a traffic light.

■ “Rolling right on red”-cornering at 5 or 7 miles per hour at a red light-should not trigger a fine.

■ The duration of the yellow light at a signalized intersection should be set at a level consistent with the speed of the roadway-reducing the yellow duration by even a second has been shown to trigger an increase in violations.

Bring back the cameras

A perfect model of traffic enforcement might be a modern-day Andy Taylor or Barney Fife stationed at every busy intersection (particularly if Andy and Barney weren’t so white). But that’s not the world we live in. The Rochester Police Department is stretched with the weight of more serious offenses than red light running, from investigating violent drug gangs to pursuing reckless Kia boys.

Hundreds of pedestrians and bicyclists are injured each year, and a dozen are killed in traffic accidents. Include vehicle occupants and the annual death toll rises to 20 and injuries rise to 1,500.

Technology can help. Red light and speed cameras have improved since they were first installed in Rochester 14 years ago. With that experience behind us, we can design and implement a system of fair and efficient automated enforcement.

Lives are at stake. As Gruber observes: Edgar Santa Cruz died because someone ran through a red light going well above the speed limit.

Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon opinion editor. Data visualization for this article was created by Beacon contributing writer and data journalist Jacob Schermerhorn. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

21 thoughts on “It’s time for automated traffic enforcement

  1. Thank you for your excellent reporting! What a well-researched and informative piece.

    I am 100% in support of implementing a smart red light camera program. It would help:
    * Take some of the traffic enforcement burden off our stretched police force
    * Save lives and prevent injuries caused by reckless driving
    * Funds could be used to make further street safety improvements to protect us all

    Reckless driving by a minority of drivers has made the community more dangerous to live in since 2020. I’ve noticed it whether I’m driving, walking, or using my bike to get around. Two examples:
    * Just this morning at East Ave & University, I was waiting for the light to turn green and two drivers sped up to run the red light.
    * Last month, a driver wildly sped through a 4-way stop intersection, lost control of his car, and went through a lamp post, crashing into my nextdoor neighbor’s tree. Thankfully no one was injured and he didn’t hit anyone on the sidewalk or go through my neighbor’s house.

  2. Great points with many striking statistics to help fill knowledge gaps. I had some thoughts to consider after I read your piece. RPD is down 90 officers, a statistic they recently released after hanging the job posting billboards. Could a different community leader utilize all of these points and appeal to both our community members and our law makers? The need for public safety is evident and the data supports the benefits of red light cameras, but the mistrust in previous zip codes used during the pilot deserve to understand why red light cameras will benefit everyone.

    • Thanks for the comment, Carrie. The shortfall in RPD officers is certainly part of the problem–but I would prefer that we deploy officers on higher valued duties, provided that automation can address the problem without risk of racial profiling and at lower cost.

      I have not seen statistics supporting the claim of a racist intent on the part of previous camera placement. We have very good crash data by intersection and street which should enable us to deploy the cameras in locations that pose the greatest risk to pedestrians, bicyclists and other motorists.

  3. Excellent piece Kent. Thank you. The many benefits of red lights are clear. Obeying the law is critical to a civilized and safe society. Without consequences we have chaos. And chaos on our roads is markedly worse, creating danger for pedestrians and other drivers. We need cameras now and not just in the city. This problem extends beyond city limits. We could probably do away with property taxes if everyone who went through the red light at Wegmans on Monroe Ave in Pittsford paid a fine.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jean. I know that the “broken windows theory” has fallen into disrepute in some circles, but I remain convinced that if relatively minor violations are ignored, the perpetrators lose respect for the law. This point has been made by some with regard to the “Kia boys”–stealing a car for a joyride can be a “gateway drug” to more lawlessness. Same principle applies to shoplifting.

  4. I think that Tom Battley and Mich Gruber are on to something!

    Affordability in all crime enforcement! Just think how such a system would work to free up so much jail space, close a lot of state and federal prisons, and reduce jail costs for tax payers!

    Naaa, Kent’s right–“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” Or in these cases, pay the fine.
    This is one example of the true meanings of Equality.

  5. Thanks a million billion for this piece, Kent. As for making an automated system most equitable, I wonder if it is possible to prorate fines based on income. I have heard they do this in some places overseas. Just as this would make the fines fairer for lower income violators, it would also deter wealthier people who find the fines negligible?

    • We can absolutely design a system of enforcement that targets the most flagrant violators, thus the drivers who are most likely to cause harm. A graduated system of fines will eventually get the attention of people with means. I’m reluctant to make the fines contingent on income, however, as this would require costly verification.

      For the sake of context, a police-issued citation for “failing to obey a traffic control device” carries a fine of $235. The red light violation fine is a bargain by comparison!

      See my response to Tom Battley below.

  6. The dollar mount of the fines is too high. Rather than a deterrent, it can be a financial disaster for low-income drivers, with disastrous financial impacts in other areas of their lives. It is pretty clear that the fine amounts are in fact cash grabs, established by individuals that might be able to afford the fines but cannot imagine making the choice between paying the fine and paying the RG&E bill. This goes for parking fines in city neighborhoods, too. I have off street parking, but what about my 19 year old neighbor renting an apartment that doesn’t? Is a $50 parking fine equitable because she forgot to run out and move her car to the other side of the street at 6:00pm?

    • Thanks for the comment, Tom. In my interview with Mitch Gruber, he offered a range of enforcement models to address this problem. A first offense could simply generate a warning. The fine might be contingent on the nature of the offense–blowing through a red light at 50 on a roadway with a speed limit of 35 could trigger a bigger fine than going through at 25 mph. The goal is to change behavior, not to raise money for the city. As a rule, red light running is a choice–“don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

    • You may have missed the paragraph or more where they will have something set up for folks with low incomes. It is not a cash grab, it is entirely about safety for pedestrians and other drivers. I would say reread. Thank You, GS

  7. Applaud the amount of research and fairness. A bit anecdotal, but it seems to be getting worse in certain places – S Clinton/S Goodman comes to mind, especially with so much handicapped pedestrian traffic in that neighborhood and the odd layout. Someone is going to get hurt.

  8. As usual Kent wrote an excellent convincing article with voluminous verifiable evidence. However, as I read the article I kept thinking about the infamous book “1984”.

  9. We moved to Norfolk VA about 3 years ago to be closer our grandchildren. Early on, we each got tickets, $50 each, for violations at intersections with cameras. A total of $150 in fines has caused us to immediately changed our driving habits.

    I see this change as the ultimate goal. The cameras serve as the “nudge” people need to accomplish the desired goal of safer streets.

  10. BRAVO to the writer, KENT GARDNER. He covered red light cameras very well. He left nothing out. They should have never been taken down by the previous mayor, Lovely Warren. She cost the City government and police millions of dollars by doing that. In the last nine years living off Lake Avenue, I have been rear-ended twice. The first was in 2017 at Boxart St. and Lake Ave., the second was 2023 on Lake Ave. near Maplewood Drive. The first accident caused long term damage in my spine. Thankfully, the second was minor. I have lived in Rochester over 43 years. In the last eight years living off Lake Ave, I have been hit twice. We need a camera near Burley Road. It’s extremely dangerous up here at higher traffic times. I know all my neighbors would welcome them again. Thank You. Gretchen

    • Thanks for the post, Gretchen. My daughter and her husband bought a house just off Lake Ave last summer–so I spend a lot of time on Lake and I’ve experienced the reckless driving. My son-in-law has told me that he avoids driving on Lake anymore than necessary. You’ll see, too, that the City’s Active Transportation Plan that identifies Lake as a corridor badly in need of investment.

  11. I agree whole heartedly with reinstalling technology to manage better driver behavior that results in safer conditions for all. I am currently recovering from surgery related to an injury incurred while trying to escape a speeding car on University Avenue, one of the worst areas where speeding occurs.

    • So sorry to hear of your injury, Joni. I would assume that the driver who caused your injury is not been called to account for their reckless driving. Which is the point!

      • Kent, you hit the nail squarely on the head. You can make the laws, but if there is no consequence to breaking them….it’s a waste of funding and effort. Recording the reckless driving, having laws in place and not following up with the appropriate punishment as in fines or incarceration….that will just embolden those who ignore the laws. The youth (the they aint suppose to be in this nation gang) in NYC for example, arrested and released after trampling police officers. Not running a red light…but sticking their finger in the eyes of the law in full view of the camara! They were not deemed by the court as a flight risk. They flipped our justice system the bilateral “bird” and are now safely tucked away in CA. That occurs everyday in Rochester and throughout the State. If there is no consequence don’t bother. Lets overhaul the justice system before wasting money of the very costly technology. Just saying.

  12. I fully agree that cameras should be implemented to enforce many of our traffic laws. Not just red lights and speeding, but my personal favorite pet peeve, the idiots who refuse to use a turn signal. But why offer any slack in the enforcement of red light cameras by permitting rolling stops? And while a few miles per hour over the speed limit might safely be permitted, allowing something on the order of 10 mph in a 30 mph zone is absurd. And adding in school buses with cameras designed to nail those who fail to stop for stopped buses would be a big improvment as well.

    But given that Rochester dumped it’s red light camera program, apparently because it caught too many drivers in certain zip codes (although why red light enforcement equally in all areas is discriminatory evades me) , and because using cameras to enforce speed limits, when such enforcement impacts a driver’s insurance costs and could endanger their driver’s license, there appears to be little chance of Rochester putting public safety over political posturing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *