California city gives 'smart' red lights a test drive

Mary Lou Jay

Cameras at intersections have been helping capture red-light runners for years now. But can technology be used to prevent accidents, rather than just catch lawbreakers after the fact? The City of Marysville, Calif., is hoping that's the case. It has become the first U.S. city to approve installation of "smart" red light devices, which can delay the green light for cross traffic when they sense that a driver may run a red.

The automated sensor is manufactured by Redflex Traffic Systems, which already provides red-light cameras to the city, according to Thinking Highways magazine. The sensor will work with information provided by the red-light cameras at the city's chosen intersection. The main camera in the system, which takes photos of the rear license plate of a red-light runner, also measures a vehicle's speed.

The automated accident prevention system would take this speed information, combine it with the distance of the car from the intersection, and predict when a vehicle would not make it through the intersection in time to avoid hitting cross traffic, according to Traffic Technology Today. The system would delay the green light for that cross traffic for a second or two, giving the intersection additional time to clear.

Although this is the first time this technology has been used in the United States, Marysville officials say there similar systems have shown success in Australia, according to Traffic Technology Today.

Meanwhile, more and more U.S. jurisdictions are employing regular red-light cameras. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), about 500 cities used red-light cameras in 2010, up from just 25 cities in 2000.

Opponents of red-light cameras say that they are an invasion of privacy and that governments are installing them primarily as revenue generators. A 2008 Florida Public Health Review paper even argues that red-light cameras could lead to auto insurance rate hikes for drivers who get caught by them -- because insurance companies can use marks on your driving record to justify increased premiums.

But proponents argue that red-light cameras save lives and that most people favor them. Statistics gathered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that 97 percent of all drivers think red-light runners are a major safety threat.

Although the effectiveness of "smart" red-light runner prediction systems in the United States remains to be seen, red-light cameras are making roads safer, according to the IIHS. In a February 2011 study of 99 similarly sized cities, the institute found that the rate of fatal crashes involving red-light running in cities with cameras was 24 percent lower than it would have been without cameras. The researchers estimated that this amounted to 83 lives saved.

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