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James Tuton

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How Safety Camera Technology Really Works

Posted: 06/14/11 04:21 PM ET

In the 20 years since I started American Traffic Solutions, the red-light safety camera industry has come a long way. ATS now has cameras in 21 states and the District of Columbia and currently there are more than 3000 cameras in communities throughout the country. But no matter how familiar drivers are with the concept behind them, misperceptions continue to exist surrounding the way the cameras operate. It is important to understand the technology, as well as the systems and processes in place to ensure that drivers are protected. Both are depicted in a new video we've created titled "How it Works."

Red-light safety cameras are meticulously engineered and maintained to accurately capture red-light runners at intersections. The basic operations include sensors embedded in the road, just before the stop line. When the traffic signal is red, the sensors detect vehicles approaching the stop line at a speed too fast to stop. The sensors send signals to the cameras indicating that a violation has occurred. The camera then captures video and a set of high resolution images before and after the vehicle crosses the stop line when the signal is still red. The video and violation images are then transmitted to my company's Operations Center where trained technicians review the violations and check for accuracy. After that, a police officer reviews the footage and images to determine conclusively that a red light has been run. If there is doubt, a citation is not issued. If the police officer is satisfied that a violation has occurred, then a ticket will be issued.

This last step is the portion of the system used with regard to red-light safety cameras that is least understood by skeptics: A police officer issues the ticket, upon a review of evidence; the process is not automated, it's just that the footage and images taken by cameras enable police to be conclusive in establishing where a violation has occurred. That matters for one reason, and one reason alone: Red-light running is the leading cause of urban crashes, according to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. More people are injured in crashes involving red-light running than in any other crash type.

Ultimately, cameras are a safety precaution and an important tool in deterring dangerous driving that has enormous negative effects on other drivers, passengers, pedestrians, cyclists and indeed taxpayers. Just recently, new studies have indicated that when red light cameras are turned off after having been in use, accidents increase.

In Houston, where cameras were switched off in the wake of a vote last November, there are three intersections where accidents have risen more than 400 percent. Citywide, comparing one six-month period without cameras to the same period a year earlier (when the cameras were in use), accidents rose 137 percent. Worse yet, there a 350 percent increase in injuries that involved injury or serious property damage.

Meanwhile, in Albuquerque, where some cameras were switched off temporarily, the number of red light runners and speeders increased 600 percent.

Red-light safety cameras have been proven a reliable, effective, technology-driven solution that help reduce collisions, injuries and fatalities by changing driver behavior. Hopefully, this video will help more people understand the way they function and the systems that are in place to ensure citations are issued only when a violation occurs.