Red Light Cameras Need Countdown Timers

Many cities in US and other countries have installed red light cameras to automatically enforce red lights. Reception has been different, with some localities embracing cameras enthusiastically, while others banned them. I personally find red light cameras highly problematic. They are installed ostensibly to improve traffic safety and cut down on very dangerous T-bone collisions that occur when a red light runner slams into a side of a car travelling across.

There are a few problems with red light cameras. The most important, in my opinion, is that for the municipalities they are source of income first and foremost. Red light cameras are operated by for-profit companies on contracts with municipalities, where operator and municipality split the profit. This creates powerful incentive for cities to cheat drivers by shortening the duration of the yellow light. Drivers are left with insufficient time to react to yellow, blow past the red light and voila – we have a ticket revenue! It was shown that longer yellow lights have permanent effect of reducing red light running: here and here. Simply increasing yellow light duration would decrease accidents, but it would also decrease red light camera revenue, so the opposite is done. I observed yellow light durations at a couple of cameras near my home and they were below the national recommendations. This is patently unfair to the drivers.

Yet the safety problem of running red light is real. How could red light cameras be used to improve safety in a fair way? Turns out, there is a very simple technical solution to the problem. Short yellow light is bad because it gives drivers insufficient warning. The first time a driver learns that he should stop is when green turns to yellow, oftentimes leaving insufficient time to react and stop. If only we could guarantee that drivers receive a warning about upcoming end of green cycle… But of course we can – by using countdown timers! These devices are now widespread – but only for pedestrians. The same approach can be used for the vehicular traffic as well. Yet the only place I’ve seen this device is a small and impoverished country of Georgia in South Caucasus (I admit that I’ve not travelled a lot outside of US). For example, look at this photo of a traffic light in an intersection in Georgian capital, Tbilisi:
Countdown timer on a traffic light in Tbilisi, country of Georgia
The picture is showing red, but the real benefit of the countdown timer is during the green cycle. This is just another example of small things that constitute good governance. If Georgia could do that, surely US could do as well. Hence my suggestion – red light cameras should be approved, but only if a prominent countdown timer is attached.

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