Widespread Speed Cameras Could Save Thousands Of Lives, New Study Finds
In 138 cities and counties across 12 states and the District of Columbia, you can be caught speeding by a radar-triggered camera. The idea of a machine writing you a ticket has been controversial enough that 13 states have passed laws banning them, and in many others where speed cameras operate, opponents decry everything from the often unopposable nature of the ticket to their visual impact on the landscape.
What has been less debated is whether speed cameras actually make roads safer. Today, a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety finds they do, and by a large enough factor that 21,000 people nationwide could be spared from injury or death in crashes if speed cameras were widespread.
“Speed cameras get drivers to ease off the accelerator, and crashes are less likely to be deadly at lower speeds,” said Adrian Lund, president of the IIHS. “This study connects the dots to show that speed cameras save lives.”
The IIHS study examined the cameras in Montgomery County, Maryland, the northern suburb of Washington, D.C. The county has been using cameras since 2007, mostly in 35-mph or slower residential areas and school zones, with a few mobile camera units deployed as necessary. The cameras write tickets if vehicles are traveling at least 11 mph above the posted limit.
Three years ago, the county set up speed-camera “corridors” — stretches of road where the cameras could be repositioned on a regular basis, so that drivers would be more likely to slow down along the entire length rather than slamming on brakes right at the camera and speeding up later.
The result? Compared to 25-35 mph roads in nearby Virginia without cameras, drivers in the speed camera zones were 39 percent less likely to have a severe or fatal crash — with most of that due to the corridor strategy. Drivers were 59 percent less likely to be traveling 10 mph or more above the limit compared to unguarded roads.
The IIHS’ estimate of 21,000 lives and injuries spared comes from extrapolating only the results on 25-35 mph streets; officials said many more could be saved if cameras were applied on faster routes.
But the IIHS study will do little to ease criticism that the real motivation for speed cameras isn’t collisions, but cash. In Washington, D.C., speed-camera revenue fell in 2014 to $37.4 million, and this year the city has grown its speed-camera stations to roughly 120, with as many as 160 more in the works. AAA Mid-Atlantic estimates the city has collected $477 million in speed camera fines since 2001 — despite having some of the most congested roads and slowest traffic in the nation.
Full disclosure: I have been snagged by the cameras in this study (only once, luckily) and drive past several on a daily basis. The study’s right: It’s now instinct for me to check my speed on streets where I know cameras stand guard. What’s more frustrating: Getting a ticket on a street where you didn’t know cameras were placed — and in a crowded urban region featuring five-lane roads with widely varying speed limits, I know how easy it can be to get caught unaware.
When I see the flash of the cameras catching another motorist in the act, I feel a bit of sympathy — but I know, subconsciously, that I’m that much more determined to not get caught. If you haven’t had that feeling yet while driving in America, the chances that you will someday just went up.