Councilmember Licata left office on January 1, 2016.
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Urban Politics #283: Speed and Red Light Cameras – Good or Bad?

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.


In Seattle we use two kinds of automated traffic law enforcement – red light cameras and speed van cameras. These tools are used at high crash sites, at other high-risk locations. They are used not to replace traditional law enforcement or to deal with safety problems caused by deficient road design, construction or maintenance. Crashes in general are the leading cause of death for 4-34 year olds. Red-light cameras and speed vans provide needed enforcement at times and locations to free up resources so police manpower can be used to address other public safety priorities.

Studies show that police traffic safety enforcement is most effective as part of a broader public safety information campaign. Enforcement campaigns focused on increasing “yielding behavior” – slowing speed or stopping at red lights – can produce a significant and long term increase in the percentage of drivers yielding to pedestrians. Recent news reports gave the impression that there will be additional red light and mobile speed vans as a result of the City’s new 2010 Budget. That is not true, the number of red light cameras, now 30, will remain the same. The City has only one mobile speed van that rotates enforcement at 7 elementary schools. There are no funds to purchase another.

These reports also stirred up the question of the motivation behind the use of these cameras. Some say that they are just another means for raising money for City government while others argue they are a needed tool to reduce the number of collisions that result in deaths and injuries.

Before assessing their value one must first understand what they do and how they are used. There are major misconceptions out there. Recently a Seattle Times editor called me and asked “What makes speed vans so effective? Is it because they go faster than a car?” Speed vans are stationary; they do not race around. They are more effective because the photo radar inside the van takes pictures of speeding vehicles. Photos that are clearly not violations are rejected. After that, trained officers in the SPD Traffic Section must authorize issuance of citations before sending a ticket to the owner of the vehicle. Consequently, more speeders are caught than the more traditional method of radar enforcement that uses an officer in a car or on a motorcycle measuring speed and requiring a second officer ahead to catch the speeding driver and cite him or her.

Red light cameras are another type of automated traffic enforcement, they do not measure speed. Instead they note if a vehicle has gone through a red light. They are prohibited by Washington State law from taking photos of the driver or occupants and are required to only capture the information needed to identify the speeding car – the car’s license plate. Speed vans work the same way. That is why the owner of the vehicle receives the ticket and not necessarily the driver. If the owner is not the driver they can appeal the ticket. An overwhelming number of those ticketed do not appeal. A telephone survey conducted in August 2008 revealed that 85% of those responding were supportive of the use of red light traffic safety cameras at arterial intersections.

The ACLU does not consider the use of these cameras to be a civil rights issue. They say, “Traffic safety and information privacy are not mutually incompatible concepts. However, if the red light program is to succeed, the American public must be assured that the information collected is used only for the authorized purpose indicated and is not sold, shared or otherwise abused.” Seattle automated traffic enforcement does not use the photo data collected for any other purpose. Click here to see their report.


Red light cameras are most effective in reducing “T-bone” collisions; they result in more deaths and serious injuries than any other type of crash. In 2008, T-Bone crashes were down by 24% at intersections in NYC that had red light cameras. In Seattle, red light cameras have reduced red light running by 59.3% and there were fewer injury crashes and fewer persons injured in crashes at test intersections than before cameras were installed. Moreover, crash severity at control intersections without cameras showed an increase in the number of persons injured.

There is evidence that in some cases red light cameras may actually cause more rear-end crashes, because of drivers slamming on their brakes to avoid going through a red light while the vehicle behind them does not. Rear end crashes result in a fatality rarely and in serious injury far less frequently than the T-Bone crashes that are so effectively reduced with red light enforcement. Red light camera controlled intersections are clearly signed notifying all drivers as they are approaching it. A driver’s reaction, if driving at the posted speed and not being followed too closely by the driver behind them, would be to slow down when approaching a yellow light; there shouldn’t be a need to slam on the brakes. However if one drives above the posted speed, the reaction often is to jet through the intersection before the light turns red. But if a red light camera sign is posted then the driver may hit the brakes to avoid going through a red light and getting a ticket.

Recently a Seattle Times columnist complained that his own driving behavior has been altered because of red light cameras. I told him that it was good thing that he had become aware of the needed to slow down at those intersections. The larger problem is that most drivers still do not. The solution is educating the public not only of the presence of red light cameras but of the need to slow down and obey the speed limits. It may be human nature or our driving culture that makes us want to go as fast as we can to get somewhere safely, unfortunately we do not all share the same perception of what is a safe speed.

Red light cameras do not need to be everywhere to significantly reduce serious crashes. Statistics from New York show that more than half of all fatal accidents occur at just 10 percent of the city’s intersections, said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a public transit, pedestrian, and bicyclist advocacy group.


A recent Seattle study on the speed van program showed that the speed van lowered speeds by 5 to 10 MPH – a significant difference in the world of pedestrian-vehicle collisions. The report can be viewed here.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data shows that reducing speeds by even a small amount can drastically reduce pedestrian fatalities. “Results indicated that higher vehicle speeds are strongly associated with both a greater likelihood of pedestrian crash occurrence and more serious resulting pedestrian injury. It was estimated that only 5 percent of pedestrians would die when struck by a vehicle traveling at 20 miles per hour or less. This compares with fatality rates of 40, 80, and nearly 100 percent for striking speeds of 30, 40, and 50 miles per hour or more respectively.”

In other words, if mobile speed vans can reduce traffic speeds in school zones from 30 to 20 miles per hour then fatality rates could be reduced from 40% to 5%. On major arterials reducing speeds from 50 to 40 miles per hour, would at least increase survival rate by 20%.

Current state law allows the city to operate our mobile speed van outside school zones up to the end of 2011. After that the State law would sunset that right unless renewed.


The Council is trying to provide about an average of $15 and $4 million dollars in annual funding for the pedestrian master plan (until 2014) and bike master plan (until 2016). The Council recently decided to eliminate an employer tax that was a dedicated revenue stream whose primary purpose was to fund to bike and pedestrian projects. In voting to eliminate the tax, I made a commitment to work to find new sources of dedicated revenue for the implementation of projects identified by the bike and pedestrian master plans.

I successfully sponsored a Council request to the Mayor that he make a recommendation for revenues collected from the City’s existing mobile speed van program. Specifically I want to explore the possibility of dedicating infraction revenue for pedestrian safety purposes consistent with the Seattle Pedestrian Master Plan instead of those revenues going into the general fund as they do now.

The National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances recommends this approach for all automated traffic law enforcement. I want the Council to also review how much revenue is collected from the red light camera program for possible future efforts to dedicate more revenue to pedestrian master plan and to bike master plan funding efforts. Without more dedicated revenue it is highly unlikely that we will meet their goals.

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