Red-light cameras might be returning to St. Louis intersections, but research questions whether they make streets any safer.
The cameras were decommissioned in 2015, after the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the city’s red-light camera program was unconstitutional. The city had to refund millions of dollars in traffic fine revenue. But the city’s streets department has requested proposals for renewing and updating the camera program earlier this month.
The new cameras would have to photograph drivers, not just license plates, to satisfy the court’s requirements. That would require new investments in technology.
City officials cite how crash fatalities increased during the year the cameras were removed. Now, they say the investment in new cameras could decrease driver and pedestrian deaths.
“We have a big problem, and we need to address it,” said Todd Waelterman, the city’s director of operations. “It's about people dying, and that's what our data shows. It shows without [cameras] there, more people are dying.”
Waelterman said he’s particularly concerned about people speeding in school zones, as well as accidents along thoroughfares such as Grand and Kingshighway boulevards. He said drivers have been clocked exceeding 100 mph on city streets.
St. Louis has higher rates of car accidents than many cities with similar characteristics, according to a study by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments.
But research shows that the red-light cameras don’t necessarily decrease car crashes or fatalities.
A study of red-light programs in three Texas cities showed the cameras decreased some types of accidents but increased others, such as rear-end collisions.
“We're finding that they're not making it at all safer,” said study author Justin Gallagher, a professor at Montana State University. Statistically, the changes canceled each other out, he said.
A look at the numbers
Accidents began to rise starting the year St. Louis shut down the cameras, according to both local and federal data. And research shows that the cameras do decrease the number of drivers who run red lights in other cities.
But Gallagher said the link is “pretty tenuous” between citywide accident rates and adding or removing red-light camera programs. Instead, he said officials should look at how accidents have changed at intersections that had cameras.
Gallagher said he’s “very skeptical that red-light camera programs would be effective in reducing accidents.”
He also noted that many studies that argue red-light cameras increase safety don’t take into account the ways that traffic varies from year to year. Cameras are often installed after accident spikes that could have abated without cameras, Gallagher noted.
He said that changing speed limits, lane widths and median locations might be better ways to make streets safer.
Waelterman said that even so, the department thinks the cameras could decrease the number of deaths on the road by deterring drivers from running red lights.
“You watch these people that just have no care in the world, blowing these lights blatantly,” he said.
Until the proposal deadline in December, the city won’t know how much the project would cost or how it would pay for it. But ideally, Waelterman said, the program would pay for the capital investment on the camera technology and sustain itself. Any excess funds would be put back into streets projects, he said.
The department is still considering whether renewing the red-light program would be feasible. The Board of Aldermen will also have to vote on any proposal. Waelterman said that would happen in a few months if the city decides to move forward with the project.
“It's all about saving lives,” Waelterman said.
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