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The Insurance Institutue for Highway Safety (IIHS) has been one of the most vocal proponents for Red Light Cameras. Their 2001 Oxnard Crash Study has been touted as conclusive proof that Red Light Cameras have a positive effect on traffic safety. However, when scrutinized, the study fails to prove anything. Many different organizations have examined it and found it to be faulty. The following is just the latest example of an objective source recognizing and reporting the many flaws.

This report was created by the California Senate Committee on Privacy, Dana Mitchell principal author.

Were Crash Reductions Associated with Red Light Camera Enforcement in Oxnard California?

A critical view of the underlying assumptions in the “2001 Oxnard Crash Study”


Red light cameras, or automated enforcement as the program is referred to in the California Vehicle Code, are championed to deter traffic accidents at busy intersections. The cameras automatically photograph vehicles whose drivers trip an underground sensor placed in an intersection. The camera records the date, time of day, time elapsed since the beginning of the red signal, and the speed of the vehicle. Tickets typically are sent by mail to owners of violating vehicles, based upon review of the photographic evidence.

In San Diego, a controversy has arisen regarding the city’s 19 red light cameras. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Lockheed Martin, the company under contract to operate the San Diego cameras, had moved the traffic sensors – an action that has raised questions about the validity of some tickets. In San Diego, up to 5,000 tickets per month were issued, with over 44,000 issued last year. The cameras have generated millions of dollars in revenue, a portion of which goes to the city. While there is little doubt that these cameras were functioning, there are legitimate questions whether they were functioning properly and within the law. In light of some of these concerns, the city has decided to, at least temporarily, cease using its red light cameras.

Earlier this month former Assemblymember Jan Goldsmith, who is now a California State Superior Court Judge, sided with the defendant in a red light camera case in People vs. Harmon (Super. Ct. San Diego County, 2001, No. 97371SD), stating, “Counsel (for the defendant) argues that the only evidence provided in this case comes from Lockheed Martin employees by way of an affidavit and accompanying documents and that their credibility is so in doubt and the information so lacking in trustworthiness that reasonable doubt is raised in the mind of the trier of fact. The Court agrees.” Id.

In yet another recent court action, California Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Styn ruled that the City of San Diego violated state law by failing to exercise enough control over the private company-Lockheed Martin-that operates its red light camera program. The court held that, “Vehicle Code Section 21455.6 enables a city to enter into a contract with a private entity for the ‘use of the system,’ but not for the operation of the system. The automated enforcement system must be operated by a governmental agency. …In this case, the actions of the City do not satisfy the plain meaning of the word ‘operate.’ The City has no involvement with, nor supervision over, the ongoing operation of the system.” In re: Red Light Camera Cases, People vs. John Allen, (Super. Ct. San Diego County, 2001, No. 57927SD).

In recent discussions about implementation of automated enforcement in California, the debate has been framed as a safety vs. privacy/due process issue. The underlying assumption – that red light cameras save lives – is based largely upon the findings of researchers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report, Crash Reductions Associated with Red Light Camera Enforcement in Oxnard California, (infra.) However, there is a growing chorus of critics challenging the findings of the important report. This paper challenges the assumption that reductions in crashes in Oxnard California were caused solely by installation of red light cameras.

Legislative History

In 1995, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed SB 833 (Kopp) Chapter 922, Statutes of 1995, a bill authorizing automated enforcement systems for use at traffic intersections. Prior to SB 833, automated enforcement systems were designed for and limited to rail crossings.

SB 833 established a three-year trial period where the automated enforcement system would be authorized for traffic control signals, as defined in Section 21450 of the Vehicle Code. In 1998, the Legislature revisited the automated enforcement system issue in SB 1136 (Chapter 54, Statutes of 1998), removing the sunsets on the temporary program.

In addition to the above, 1997 saw enactment of two other major driver safety programs. First, the Legislature significantly raised the penalties for running a red light in AB 1191 (Shelley) Chapter 852, Statutes of 1997. Prior to AB 1191, the fine for running a red light was $35, plus penalty assessments that raised the total to $104. AB 1191 raised the fine to $100. With penalty assessments, the total cost of a violation was raised to approximately $270.

Secondly, AB 1329 (Leslie), Chapter 760, Statutes of 1997, placed strict conditions and restrictions on the exercise of driving privileges by minors who hold an instruction permit or provisional drivers’ license, by requiring additional supervised driving practice, placing graduated restrictions on driving hours and the transportation of passengers, and authorizing community service penalties and fines for violations of such restrictions.

The Oxnard Study

One of the first cities in the country to use automated enforcement technology was Oxnard, California. On July 1, 1997, Oxnard implemented automated enforcement cameras at 15 intersections throughout the city. The stated goal was public safety. At the time, “Police officials said the new system will prevent car accidents. ‘In 1996, there were 220 car crashes attributed to drivers trying to beat the light in Oxnard, said Joe Genovese,’ traffic engineer. ‘As the number of citations increases, we’re hoping we’ll see the number of traffic accidents decreasing,’ he said.” Neely, Pictures worth weight in safety Candid Cameras: Devices capture drivers running red lights to tune of $104 fine, Ventura County Star, (July 1, 1997) page A03.

Almost immediately after the Oxnard automated enforcement program began, researchers from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety began to study the effects of these “red light cameras” upon Oxnard resident’s driving behavior. In 1999 the results of their efforts were published. ( See: Retting, R.A., et al, A.F. 1999, Evaluation of red light camera enforcement in Oxnard, California, Accident Analysis and Prevention, 31:169-174). This study claimed to demonstrate that red light violations decreased by 42 percent in Oxnard after cameras were installed at nine intersections. Id.

Soon after release of this report, another — the first U.S. research on the effects of camera enforcement on intersection crashes — was conducted in Oxnard. That study, also by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found that “injury crashes at intersections with traffic signals were reduced 29 percent after camera enforcement began; front-into-side collisions — the crash type that’s most closely associated with red light running — were reduced 32 percent overall, and front-into-side crashes involving injuries were reduced 68 percent, and; crashes declined throughout Oxnard even though only 11 of the city’s 125 intersections with traffic signals are equipped with cameras.” Redding and Kyrychenko, April 2001, Crash Reductions Associated with Red Light Camera Enforcement in Oxnard California, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, hereafter 2001 Oxnard Crash Study.)

These studies have since been widely quoted and offered as evidence of the public safety benefits municipalities enjoy from automated red light camera enforcement. See, e.g.: Pagett, Disregard of traffic signals adds to traffic death toll (Jan. 18, 1999) Chicago Sun Times, page 2N; “The camera strategy is working. A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Oxnard, Calif., showed that violations decreased by 42 percent after the cameras were installed in nine intersections. There was a similar decline of violators in intersections without cameras.”; Huddlestone, Bill would let cities use stoplight cameras (Dec. 18, 1998) San Antonio Express-News, page 1A, “A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that Oxnard, Calif., reduced stoplight violations by 42 percent after cameras were used at nine intersections.”; Garston, Red-Light Cameras cut accidents and collisions, Insurance Institute study shows shift in driver behavior, (April 4, 2001) The Detroit News, “Cameras aimed at catching drivers who run red lights also are helping to prevent collisions and injuries, according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.”

However, recent controversy surrounding the methodology used by Institute researchers in the 2001 Oxnard Crash Study have cast doubt upon the validity of conclusion that automated enforcement systems increase traffic safety. Indeed, in at least one other study, researchers found an increase in accidents due to a rise in rear-end collisions associated with automated enforcement.

The Armey Report

“House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, is crusading against the red-light cameras that have sprouted up at intersections around the country, saying that they violate constitutional principles and that localities have deliberately shortened yellow-light intervals in order to raise revenue.” D’Agostino, Armey takes on traffic-surveillance cameras Lawmaker says cities have shortened yellow lights to raise revenue, (visited August 24, 2001)

In a report published on his Internet web site, Freedom Works, (Armey Report) the House Majority leader makes the following accusations:

“There’s a hidden tax being levied on motorists today. In theory, this tax is only levied on those who violate the law and put others in danger. But the reality is that the game has been rigged. And we’re all at risk. We are told to accept the idea that our laws should be administered by machines-not human beings-because it is a matter of safety. We must accept this expansion of government and this Orwellian threat to our privacy because cameras are the solution to the so-called red light running crisis…

“But why have so many people become wanton red light runners all of a sudden? The answer seems to be that changes made to accommodate camera enforcement have produced yellow light times that, in many cases, are shortened to the point that they are inadequate. And when people come upon an intersection with inadequate yellow time, they are faced with the choice either of stopping abruptly on yellow (risking a rear end accident) or accelerating. The options for those confronting such circumstances are limited and unsafe. But each time a driver faces this dilemma, government increases its odds for hitting the jackpot.

“This report suggests there is something that can be done to address this hazard. It cites examples of problem intersections where yellow times have been raised by about 30 percent and the number of people entering on red fell dramatically. It cites, in addition, controlled scientific studies that confirm the hypothesis that longer yellows are better.”

The Armey Report continues stating that, “none of the reports that are supposed to tell us that red light cameras are responsible safety benefits actually say that. First, they dismiss increases in rear-end collisions associated with red light cameras as ‘non-significant,’ despite evidence to the contrary. Second, they do not actually look at red light intersection accidents. The latest accident study in Oxnard, California, for example, only documents accident reductions ‘associated with’-not caused by-red light cameras. Although that statement has little scientific value, it does have great marketing appeal if you don’t look too closely.”

The Armey Report points out that, “To date, the only case studies of red light running and camera use in the United States have taken place in Arlington, Virginia, City of Fairfax, Virginia and Oxnard, California. … The studies performed at these locations share a lot in common, mostly because they were all performed by the same researcher. Consequently, they also share many of the same flaws in methodology.”

Perhaps the greatest fault with the Oxnard Crash Study found in the Armey Report is not contained in the Oxnard Study itself-rather, it is what the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety researchers did NOT study. The Armey Report states, “(I)ncredibly, the 2001 IIHS Oxnard study did not actually study any accidents caused by red light running. ‘…the crash data did not contain sufficient detail to identify crashes that were specifically red light running events…’ (2001 Oxnard report, page 1). Nor did it even study accidents at intersections that have red light cameras.

“Instead, the study’s author, Retting, merely looked at accident codes from a database over a 2 and a half-year period to claim that accidents throughout the Oxnard area dropped by about 30 percent as a result of the red light cameras. The connection between area accidents and red light cameras is only an implied connection. There is no scientific evidence in the report showing any demonstrable connection between the two.

Unasked Questions May Undermine The Findings Of The 2001 Oxnard Crash Study

If possible, one would wish to know whether the placement of cameras at a particular intersection had any impact upon the crash rates before one claimed that crash reductions were associated with the red light cameras. However, as the Armey Report points out, the researchers involved in the Oxnard Study did not examine the actual incident of accidents before and after implementation of automated enforcement. In the research method portion of the Oxnard Crash Study, this omission is explained as follows, “Because of limited crash-type definitions used in SWITRS, it was not possible to categorize crashes specifically as red light running events.” 2001 Oxnard Crash Study, supra. Actually, this statement is not accurate.

The California Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System (SWITRS) has a specific data field for such information – the primary collision factor. When one requests SWITRS information from the California Highway Patrol, the search may be localized to a specific intersection (or nine intersections), for a given period of time, with the number of collisions at each and the primary collision factor. Given the availability of information, it would be interesting to know what the actual number of crashes was at these key intersections.

The 2001 Oxnard Crash Study failed to factor in all relevant variables upon driver behavior, thereby potentially skewing the study conclusions

The purpose of the 2001 Oxnard Crash Study was to “estimate the impact of red light camera enforcement on intersection crashes in Oxnard California, one of the first U.S. communities to employ such cameras. … To control for potentially confounding external factors such as economic conditions, fuel prices, and weather, which might affect the frequency of motor vehicle crashes, three California cities that did not implement red light enforcement during the study period were used as controls.” 2001 Oxnard Crash Study, supra.

While researchers incorporated the above-mentioned variables, they seemingly failed to factor in changes in state law and increased federal attention to red light violations into their assumption that changes in driver behavior were caused by automated enforcement cameras.

AB 1191 (Shelley) Increase red light violation fine

In Evaluation of red light camera enforcement in Oxnard, California, supra, researchers recognized the potential impact of one 1997 change in the California Vehicle Code which essentially doubled the fine for red light violations, upon driver behavior, and limited their study to a time frame prior to enforcement of the new law. Specifically, the researchers recognized, “the effects in Oxnard will be influenced by substantial statewide increases in red light violation fines that took effect in January 1998. The standard monetary fines increased from $104 to $270. Because of this substantial fine increase and any associated publicity, there was no further evaluation of program effects beyond that reported here.” Id.

It appears that in the 2001 Oxnard Crash Study, researchers failed to heed their own counsel, and included the time period following enactment of AB 1191 (Shelley), Ch. 852, Stats. of 1997. The author of that measure, Assembly Member Kevin Shelley, claims that since the increase in fines for red light violations has been in place, red light running in San Francisco has dropped 14 percent. Daily News Staff, A slow roll instead of a complete stop could get a whole lot more expensive, (May 26, 1999) Daily News of Los Angeles. It would be interesting to know what percentage of the estimated change in driving behavior in Oxnard was actually due to the fine – and not the cameras. This reduction in red light violations could have been a factor in the overall crash reductions seen in Oxnard.

AB 1329 (Leslie) Restrictions upon minor’s driving privileges

A second major piece of traffic safety legislation which took effect within the 2001 Oxnard Crash Study period was AB 1329 (Leslie), Ch. 760, Stats. of 1997. This bill included the following provisions: 1. “Extend from 30 days to six months the time an instruction permit must be held before applying for a provisional driver’s license; 2. Require 50 hours of supervised driving practice with an instruction permit, with at least 10 hours of night driving; 3. During the first six months after issuance of a provisional license, require the driver to be accompanied by a licensed driver who is the driver’s parent, guardian or a licensed driver who is 25 years of age or older, or a licensed or certified driving instructor older than 25 years of age when (a) driving between 12:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. and (b) transporting passengers under the age of 20.” (Senate Floor Analysis, AB 1329 (Leslie) as amended 9/3/97.)

According to information provided on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety web site, Graduated Driver Licensing, Questions and Answers, the passage of AB 1329 could have had an impact upon the number of red light violations, and vehicle crashes during the study period. In particular, the Graduated Driver Licensing Q & A cite claims that, ” Two factors in particular work against young drivers: inexperience and immaturity. Young drivers tend to be immature and impulsive, overestimating their own physical and driving abilities and underestimating dangers in the driving environment. This leads them to risky driving behaviors such as speeding, passing inappropriately, following too closely, and driving without seat belts … Teen passengers increase the crash risk for teenage drivers both during the day and at night. … Studies show that nighttime driving restrictions are associated with crash reductions of up to 60 percent during restricted hours.” Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Graduated Driver Licensing, Questions and Answers.

It would seem that the changes in California law respond to those concerns addressed in the Graduated Driver Licensing Q & A web site. If the statistics cited by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hold true in Oxnard, one would expect to see a reduction in crashes involving teen drivers following adoption of AB 1329 – and therefore an overall reduction in crashes. This reduction-in-crash factor seems large enough to be considered and included into any study of changes in crash rates. It does not appear that the relative numbers of youthful drivers in Oxnard and the control cities was considered by researchers in the 2001 Oxnard Crash Study.

Traffic Safety Initiatives

The 2001 Oxnard Crash Study states in the “Discussion” section that, “During the time of this study, no other comprehensive traffic safety programs were implemented in Oxnard that could account for these crash reductions.” 2001 Oxnard Crash Study, supra. However, there were a number of traffic safety programs which specifically targeted red light runners in place during the study period. A sampling off such efforts are summarized below:

Ventura/Pacific Coast Highway Safety Corridor

The following information was found on the National Transportation Library web site, which describes an intensive traffic safety effort – including a red light component and extensive public education campaign- which took place during the 2001 Oxnard Crash Study period. This effort is claimed to have reduced crashes and injuries along the corridor, which included the City of Oxnard, by 25%.

The Pacific Coast Highway Safety Corridor in Ventura County is a densely traveled roadway used by commuters en route to downtown Los Angeles, by local residents and by tourists traveling to recreational areas. Between 1989 and 1991, there were 1,467 collisions on the roadway, resulting in 20 fatalities and 1,105 crash-related injuries. Police officers who investigate collisions also identified the primary cause for each crash. The following were found to be the most frequent causal factors:

* Unsafe speed
* Driving under the influence of alcohol and other drugs
* Driving on the wrong side of the road
* Right-of-way violations
* Improper turning
* Tailgating
* Stop sign/signal violations

GOALS AND OBJECTIVES: The Pacific Coast Highway Safety Task Force was established in April 1993 to identify conditions or behaviors on the corridor that may contribute to collisions, to recommend corresponding solutions to identified concerns and to implement as many of the recommendations as possible.

STRATEGIES AND ACTIVITIES: The Pacific Coast Highway Task Force made recommendations in the following four major areas: emergency response, engineering, enforcement, and education. To assist emergency response, four microcell sites will be installed in the fall of 1994. These will support 28 emergency call boxes to enable motorists to request help or report crashes immediately. The engineering recommendation called for upgrading and reviewing signal controllers and signal timers to reduce congestion and potential for collisions, and to allow for more efficient traffic recovery. To improve safety on rural, winding roads, “Do Not Pass” signs have been installed, and other signs, signals and reflectors will be installed to guide motorists. The California Highway Patrol (CHP) and Oxnard Police Department are deploying officers on an overtime basis to target the locations and days of the week when most collisions occur. Because a disproportionate number of fatalities in Oxnard are pedestrians, cycle officers will patrol the area where these collisions most often occur. Officers from both agencies will work with CHP’s El Protector Program to disseminate traffic safety information to the Spanish-speaking community. An easily recognized logo and slogan, COAST Concentrate on a Safe Trip were developed and are used in all public awareness materials and public education efforts. Such efforts include highway signs, brochures, radio and television public service announcements, and articles in travel magazines. A news conference to kick-off the campaign along with an hour-long talk show were aired on local television.

RESULTS: Because the Pacific Coast Highway Safety Corridor Task Force has been in effect for only a little more than a year, crash reduction statistics have not yet been compiled. A joint sobriety checkpoint was conducted during April 1994, which resulted in DUI arrests for a total of 18 motorists.

Subsequent follow up research by the Virginia Department of Transportation, Jernigan, Final Report, Comparative Case Studies of Corridor Safety Improvement, (Dec. 1999) Virginia Transportation Research Council, VTRC 00-R17, (Virginia Report) confirms that “injury crashes and injuries decreased about 25%” as a result of the project’s efforts. (Id. at p.13)

The Task Force recommendations were implemented by Cal Trans over the course of the 2001 Oxnard Crash Study period. It is not known whether the “overall” reduction in red light crashes highlighted in the 2001 Oxnard Crash Study actually came as a result of the work of the Pacific Coast Highway Safety Corridor Task Force, or the installation of automated enforcement.

CHP- Stop Red Light Running program

An additional effort targeted red light violators during the 2001 Oxnard Crash Study period, the Stop Red Light Running program. In California, this program ran from September 1997 through April 1998, during which “the CHP has been specifically targeting red-light runners as part of a six-month program supported by a $25,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration.” Campos, Red Light Runners Get Extra Attention, Sacramento Bee (Jan. 1998) page B1.

According to the U.S. DOT, Federal Highway Administration, “The Stop Red Light Running Program was created by the Federal Highway Administration in 1995 as a community-based safety program. This campaign raised awareness of the dangers of red light running and helped reduce fatalities in many of the participating communities. In April of 1998, DaimlerChrysler and the American Trauma Society partnered with FHWA to continue the Stop Red Light Running Program. … Early results of the campaign showed that it has raised awareness of the dangers of red light running by 60 percent and reduced crashes at some intersections in some communities by 43 percent. DOT, Federal Highway Administration, Safety, Stop Red Light Running.

While the drafters of the 2001 Oxnard Crash Study might not consider the Stop Red Light program a “comprehensive traffic safety program” worthy of consideration in their analysis, it would seem relevant to ask whether the impact of such an education and targeted enforcement program could impact the behavior of the driving public. The FHSA thinks so, but to what extent this statewide program affected drivers in Oxnard during the study period we simply cannot say.

Australian Study: Red Light Cameras Increase Accidents

In 1995 a study was undertaken in Australia, at the request of the Department of Road Safety. The report (Andreassen, Australian Road Research Board Report: A long term study of Red Light Cameras and Accidents, (Feb. 1995) Australian Road Research Board, Ltd. ARR 261), (Australian Study) it is one of the most comprehensive looks at the effect of red light cameras to date. The authors of the Armey Report, discussed above, contend that the “Australian Study” is a model of how to conduct a red light research project. In the Armey Report, they state the following in regard to the Australian Study:

“The report’s conclusion is the most striking, particularly considering the American coverage of this issue: ‘There has been no demonstrated value of the Red Light Cameras (RCL) as an effective countermeasure” (page 1).

Red Light Cameras and Rear-end Accidents

The Australian study goes on to conclude that red light cameras tend to cause rear-end accidents. “This study suggests that the installation of the RLC at these sites did not provide any reduction in accidents, rather there have been increases in rear end and adjacent approaches accidents on a before and after basis…” (Page 20).

This should come as no surprise. The goal of a red light camera is to make people fear being ticketed if they enter a camera-controlled intersection on red. Common sense dictates that if the desired effect of red light cameras is achieved, there will be an increase in rear-end accidents. This is because motorists fearing a ticket will panic and slam on their brakes to avoid entering an intersection. This sudden maneuver can surprise cars and trucks behind, causing a collision.” Armey Report, supra.

In a paper entitled, “Comments on The Red Light Running Crisis: Is It Intentional?” the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety challenges the findings in the Armey Report. In a section captioned, “Flaws in Australian Study,” the IIHS states, “this study doesn’t follow scientific methodology. In particular, noncamera sites are used as controls, a problem because the spillover effect of camera enforcement to sites without cameras has been well documented. The authors don’t account for the many confounding factors that cloud the results of the study over its 10-year period (aggressive speed camera enforcement during these years, robust alcohol enforcement, traffic signal changes during the study period, etc.). And it’s worth noting that the Australian study, unlike nearly all studies conducted by Institute researchers, has not been published in the scientific literature.” Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Comments on The Red Light Running Crisis: Is It Intentional?”

Note: This protestation about the scientific validity of the Australian Study seem at odds with the fact that the IIHS researchers cited the Australian Study in both the 1999 Evaluation of red light camera enforcement in Oxnard, California, study, and the 2001 Oxnard Crash Study.


The 2001 Oxnard Crash Study conclusions seem based upon questionable assumptions, and further study is needed before we can say crash reductions in Oxnard were associated with red light camera enforcement.

While it cannot be debated that the affects of red light running are tragic and deplorable, it can be debated whether red light cameras do anything to help resolve this problem. The most prominent paper published on the safety effects of red light cameras was the 2001 Oxnard Crash Study. However, this study suffers from a number of shortcomings which bring its assumptions into doubt. Specifically, the 2001 Oxnard Crash Study never looked at accidents caused by red light violators; failed to factor in potential impact of related traffic safety legislation; failed to account for local traffic safety measures and statewide law enforcement programs targeting red light violators. Yet, without benefit of this data, researchers claimed that a 7% reduction in overall crashes and a 29% reduction in injury crashes through out the City of Oxnard were the result of automated enforcement cameras.

By way of contrast, a ten year study of automated enforcement cameras conducted in Australia yielded an opposite result. The Australian Study found that there was no long-term reduction in accidents at intersections equipped with automated enforcement cameras -indeed, that study concluded that such cameras increased the number of accidents, due to a rise in rear end collisions.

Given the absence of proof that the reduction of accidents in Oxnard had anything to do with automated enforcement cameras, and the conflicting evidence offered by the Australian Study that cameras increase crashes, further study is needed before we can say with certainty that crash reductions were associated with red light camera enforcement in Oxnard, California.