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Red light running

Overview

Red light running happens frequently and is often deadly. In 2021, 1,109 people were killed in crashes that involved red light running.

Red light safety cameras are an effective way to discourage red light running. Enforcement is the best way to get people to comply with any law, but it's impossible for police to be at every intersection. Cameras can fill the void. An IIHS study found that cameras reduced the fatal red light running crash rate of large cities by 21% and the rate of all types of fatal crashes at signalized intersections by 14%.

Cameras don’t violate privacy. Driving is a regulated activity, and people who obtain licenses are agreeing to abide by certain rules. Red light safety cameras are a way to catch people who break those rules, just like traditional enforcement.

Proper signal timing makes intersections safer. Adequate yellow time reduces red light running and leads to fewer crashes.

By the numbers

Red light runners cause hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries each year.In 2021, 1,109 people were killed in crashes that involved red light running. Half of those killed were pedestrians, bicyclists and people in other vehicles who were hit by the red light runners.In 2021, an estimated 127,000 people were injured in red light running crashes.

Red light running defined

If a vehicle enters an intersection any time after the signal light has turned red, the driver has committed a violation. Motorists who are inadvertently in an intersection when the signal changes (waiting to turn left, for example) are not red light runners.In locations where a right turn on red is permitted, drivers who fail to come to a complete stop before turning may be considered red light runners. Violations also include people turning right on red at intersections where doing so is prohibited.

A study conducted during several months at five busy intersections in Fairfax, Va., prior to the use of red light safety cameras, found that, on average, a motorist ran a red light every 20 minutes at each intersection (Retting et al., 1999). During peak travel times, red light running was more frequent.

An analysis of red light violation data from 19 intersections without red light safety cameras in four states found a violation rate of 3.2 per hour per intersection ().

Who runs red lights?

In a 2021 national telephone survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 76% of drivers said it is very or extremely dangerous to drive through a red light that had just turned red when they could have stopped safely, but 28% reported doing so in the past 30 days (). 

Among drivers involved in fatal red-light-running multiple-vehicle crashes in 2021, the red light runners were more likely than other drivers to be male, to be younger, and to have prior crashes or alcohol-impaired driving convictions. The red light runners also were more likely to be speeding or alcohol-impaired at the time of the crash and less likely to have a valid driver's license.

Signal timing

Providing adequate yellow signal time is important and can reduce crashes. Studies have shown that increasing yellow timing to values associated with guidelines published by the Institute of Transportation Engineers can significantly decrease the frequency of red light violations and reduce the risk of total crashes, injury crashes and right-angle crashes (; Retting & Greene, 1997; ; ).

Adjusting yellow signal time alone may not be enough. An IIHS study conducted in Philadelphia evaluated effects on red light running of first lengthening yellow signal timing by about a second and then introducing red light safety cameras (Retting et al., 2008). While the longer yellow reduced red light violations by 36%, adding camera enforcement further cut red light running by another 96%.

How red light safety cameras work

Red light safety cameras automatically photograph vehicles that go through red lights. The cameras are connected to the traffic signal and to sensors that monitor traffic flow just before the crosswalk or stop line. The system continuously monitors the traffic signal, and the camera captures any vehicle that doesn't stop during the red phase. Many programs provide motorists with grace periods of up to half a second after the light switches to red.Where red light safety cameras are used, it’s standard practice for trained police officers or authorized civilian employees to review every picture or video clip to verify vehicle information and ensure the vehicle is in violation. A ticket is issued only if there is clear evidence the vehicle ran a red light ().In most states, camera citations are treated as civil offenses rather than moving violations. This means that there are no driver license points assessed and no insurance implications. In some states, the law specifically prohibits insurers from considering camera citations in determining premiums or renewals. In a few states (Arizona, California, Oregon) red light safety camera citations are treated the same as citations issued by police officers doing traffic enforcement.In some jurisdictions, state law makes the vehicle owner responsible for the ticket by establishing a presumption that the registered owner is the vehicle driver at the time of offense. This type of legislation provides a mechanism for vehicle owners to inform authorities if someone else was driving.Another option is to treat violations captured by red light safety cameras as the equivalent of parking tickets. If, as in New York, camera violations are treated like parking citations, the law can make registered vehicle owners responsible without regard to who was driving at the time of the offense.In either case, the locality must provide a process for appealing the ticket. Grounds for appeal may include, for example, evidence that the vehicle has been stolen, that a warning sign was missing from the intersection when the authorizing law requires a sign, or that the vehicle moved into the intersection to make way for an emergency vehicle.Automated enforcement doesn’t violate privacy because driving is a regulated activity on public roads. By obtaining a license, a motorist agrees to abide by certain rules, such as to obey traffic signals. There’s no legal or common-sense reason drivers shouldn't be observed on the road or have their violations documented.

Effectiveness of cameras

Red light safety cameras have been shown to reduce both red light violations and crashes.

A series of IIHS studies in different communities found that red light violations are reduced significantly with cameras. Institute studies in Oxnard, California, and Fairfax, Virginia, reported reductions in red light violation rates of about 40% after the introduction of red light safety cameras (Retting et al., 1999; Retting et al., 1999). In addition to the decrease in red light running at camera-equipped sites, the effect carried over to nearby signalized intersections not equipped with cameras. 

A more recent IIHS study in Arlington, Va., also found significant reductions in red light violations at camera intersections one year after ticketing began (McCartt & Hu, 2014). These reductions were greater the more time had passed since the light turned red, when violations are more likely to result in crashes.

Violations occurring at least a half second after the light turned red were 39% less likely than would have been expected without cameras. Violations occurring at least 1 second after were 48% less likely, and the odds of a violation occurring at least 1.5 seconds into the red phase fell 86%.

When it comes to crash reductions, an IIHS study comparing large cities with red light safety cameras to those without found the devices reduced the fatal red light running crash rate by 21% and the rate of all types of fatal crashes at signalized intersections by 14% (Hu & Cicchino, 2017).

Previous research in Oxnard, California, found significant citywide crash reductions followed the introduction of red light safety cameras, and injury crashes at intersections with traffic signals were reduced by 29% (Retting & Kyrychenko, 2002). Front-into-side collisions — the crash type most closely associated with red light running — at these intersections declined by 32% overall, and front-into-side crashes involving injuries fell 68%. 

The Cochrane Collaboration, an international public health organization, reviewed 10 controlled before-after studies of red light safety camera effectiveness (). Based on the most rigorous studies, there was an estimated 13%-29% reduction in all types of injury crashes and a 24% reduction in right-angle injury crashes.Some studies have reported that while red light safety cameras reduce front-into-side collisions and overall injury crashes, they can increase rear-end crashes. However, such crashes tend to be much less severe than front-into-side crashes, so the net effect is positive.A study sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration evaluated red light safety camera programs in seven cities (). It found that, overall, right-angle crashes decreased by 25% while rear-end collisions increased by 15%. Results showed a positive aggregate economic benefit of more than $18.5 million in the seven communities.The authors concluded that the economic costs from the increase in rear-end crashes were more than offset by the economic benefits from the decrease in right-angle crashes targeted by cameras.Not all studies have reported increases in rear-end crashes. The review by the Cochrane Collaboration did not find a statistically significant change in rear-end injury crashes ().When camera programs are discontinued, crash rates go up.

An IIHS study compared large cities that turned off red light safety cameras with those with continuous camera programs. In 14 cities that shut down their programs during 2010-14, the fatal red light running crash rate was 30% higher than would have been expected if they had left the cameras on. The rate of fatal crashes at signalized intersections was 16% higher (Hu & Cicchino, 2017).

A study in Houston, which turned off red light safety cameras in 2011, found that the camera deactivation was associated with a 23% increase in right-angle red light running crashes at the intersections that previously had cameras ().

Communities using red light safety cameras

The first camera program was implemented in 1992 in New York City. During 2023, 337 U.S. communities operated red light safety camera programs, according to media sources and other public information tracked by IIHS.Although new safety camera programs continue to be added, the total number of camera programs has declined since 2012 because more programs have been discontinued than have been initiated.Commonly cited reasons for turning off cameras include a reduction in camera citations, difficulty sustaining the financial viability of the program (for example, because fines from the camera citations are shared with state government or because violators don't pay their fines) and community opposition.

Trends in the number of U.S. communities with red light safety camera programs

Major U.S. cities with red light safety cameras include Chicago, Denver, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

U.S. communities using red light safety cameras

Maintaining public support

Like other government policies and programs, camera enforcement requires acceptance and support among the public as well as elected officials. Some opponents of automated enforcement raise the "big brother" issue, and voters in some cities have rejected cameras.

Still, acceptance of cameras always has been strong. A 2011 IIHS survey in 14 big cities with longstanding red light safety camera programs found that two-thirds of drivers support their use (McCartt & Eichelberger, 2012). A 2012 IIHS survey conducted in Washington, D.C., which has an extensive camera program, found that 87% of residents support red light safety cameras (Cicchino et al., 2014).

Programs have the best chance of earning community support if they are designed to improve safety by modifying driver behavior and not to generate revenue.

An automated enforcement program checklist published in 2021 by IIHS along with AAA, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the Governors Highway Safety Association and the National Safety Council provides practical instructions for planning and implementing red light safety camera and automated speed enforcement programs. The guide aims to help communities follow best practices and maintain public support for the programs.

First steps for red light safety camera programs include careful assessment of intersections where red light running is a problem. Communities need to ensure that steps are taken to evaluate road design and signal timing.The checklist recommends that policymakers organize a community advisory committee made up of stakeholders such as law enforcement, victim advocates, school officials and residents to make suggestions on the development of a program.Revenue generated by the program should be allocated toward transportation safety programs.In the long term, communities should plan for regular program evaluation based on crash and infraction data. The guide discourages simple before-and-after comparisons of crashes because the numbers can be skewed by factors such as the ups and downs of the economy. Instead, comparisons should be made using proper control intersections that are not subject to the known "spillover effect," whereby crashes are reduced at intersections throughout a community, not just at the camera sites.
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