It would be a major understatement to say that traffic cameras are a contentious issue here in the United States. It's no fun getting a ticket in the mail for driving through an intersection when the light was yellow. There's something that feels unfair or unknowable about these soulless citations. Yet, despite the frustration (and the fine), you can always at least say to yourself, "well, this ticket sucks but at least our roads are safer with these cameras in place."

Well... not so fast, says The Chicago Tribune. The newspaper recently commissioned a major study to investigate Chicago's red light camera system after the mayor's office released some curious statistics supporting its effectiveness. The study, released earlier this week, suggests not only that the mayor's office released spurious numbers to defend the cameras but that the system as a whole is actually making Chicago intersections less safe.

Megan Geuss of Ars Technica explains:

"According to the Tribune, the authors of the study found a statistically significant, but still smaller, reduction in angle and turning injury crashes by 15 percent, as well as 'a statistically significant increase of 22 percent in rear-end injury collisions.' Overall, there was 'a non-significant increase of 5 percent in the total number of injury crashes' that happened at intersections with red light cameras when comparing the injury crashes that occurred there before and after the cameras were present.

On a more granular level, the researchers found that there were no safety benefits from cameras that are installed at intersections where there have already been few crashes with injuries, and occasionally, there was evidence that red light cameras actually increased injury crashes at such intersections. 'When intersections experiencing fewer than 4 injury crashes per year are considered, there is a significant increase in all crashes by 19 percent after the installation of RLCs,' the Tribune study found."

That's a pretty damning report for a system that, according to Geuss, has already been embroiled in scandal. And then there's the fact that traffic cameras in cities across the country are huge sources of revenue for local governments. Take Washington D.C. as an example. A report in September noted that the city would experience a budget imbalance because traffic camera revenue wouldn't be nearly as much as in previous years:

"The city expected to collect $93.7 million through automated traffic enforcement in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, but as of the end of August, the cameras had generated only $26.1 million, according to preliminary cash reports issued by [CFO Jeffrey S.] DeWitt’s office."

That's tens of millions of dollars in traffic citations that would disappear overnight if these cameras went away. You can probably put 2 and 2 together here and see the major conflict of interest. Here's Geuss again:

"The Tribune noted that the red light camera program has raised more than $500 million off of the $100 tickets since 2002."

If more reports surface that suggest traffic cameras aren't making streets safer, will local governments really be willing to give up all that cash? One Chicago alderman quoted in the Tribune piece argues that the cameras exist solely to leech revenue and nothing more. Geuss goes on to point out that thousands of drivers in Chicago have been cited erroneously by the system. The lights were probably yellow.

So what's the takeaway here? These systems are controversial, they may be ineffective, and they're total cash cows. But push is going to come to shove sooner or later in Chicago, D.C., and other cities across the country. It'll be fascinating to watch when it does.

Have you ever been cited by a traffic camera? Was it an error? Let us know in the comments below how you feel about these systems.

Read more at Ars Technica

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