By now I'm sure we've all seen traffic cameras looming high above busy intersections. What was once a feature of sci-fi fantasy or something you'd only see in a massive city like Los Angeles is now a common sight in even small Ontario cities. I'll admit, I was actually pretty happy to see them when they first started making their way through Southern Ontario. Not only did it bring us one step closer to a our inevitable Blade Runner future, I was perfectly fine with them as a way of encouraging smarter driving habits. I considered myself a pretty safe driver, unlikely to be hit with a lot of tickets, if the threat of an automatic, guaranteed fine on busy intersections made every other driver on the road a little more careful, that could only be a good thing right?
Well, this is one of those cases where good intentions and common sense assumptions collide with reality and human nature (just like a nasty rear-end collision). It turns out, traffic cameras have an unintended, and dangerous, effect on driving habits wherever they are posted.
While there have been grumblings about traffic cameras since their introduction, more and more hard data is coming out to prove that traffic cameras actually increase the number of serious, injury causing read-end accidents at intersections. Just last year, the Chicago Tribune published an exhaustive investigation into the phenomenon in Chicago, a city that runs one of the largest and most wide spread traffic camera programs in North America. The results were unmistakable - and applicable to every city running a similar program.
While one would assume the presence of highly visible traffic cameras would naturally decrease accidents (fewer people running reds or engaging in illegal turns), that's not what the numbers bear out. The traffic cameras change driver's behavior, but instead of encouraging safe driving, they encourage panic. The decision making process in a drivers head coming up to a light turns from "can I safely stop or cross on this yellow?” to "OH NO, I CAN'T GET A TICKET THIS CLOSE TO CHRISTMAS!” *SQUEELING STOP *. More sudden, jarring stops, more rear-end collisions and more injuries.
Controversy sets in when you consider that this is not a particularly new concern, it's just gaining popular recognition. It's easy to find studies and articles a decade back when these systems were first introduced in major cities that bore out the same information. These concerns are always brought up whenever a city or town wants to introduce traffic cameras to their roads. However, traffic light cameras have also become a major source of income. The dependable, regular fines generated by red light cameras have quickly become a huge bankroll for many municipalities. One doesn't want to be cynical, but it seems like the decision to introduce and keep traffic cameras may be more motivated by a city's finances than the safety of its citizens.
Whether you buy into that or not, traffic cameras aren't going anywhere soon, so it's up to you to deal with them as best, and as safely, as you can. Get to know the intersections with traffic cameras in your neighborhood and on your common commutes. Be extra vigilant when approaching them, anticipating that cars in front of you may suddenly stop. If you happen to be speeding towards a light that suddenly goes yellow, remember that a ticket is usually a lot less expensive than a collision deductible and try your best to keep the camera from impacting your judgment.