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California: Red Light Camera Pilot City Tops Injury Accident Charts
Oxnard led California in the use of red light cameras for a decade. The city now has the second highest injury and fatality rate in the state.

Oxnard red light camera photo
Insurance industry researchers have hailed Oxnard, California as the flagship in their effort to promote innovative traffic safety efforts. For a decade, the coastal city has been at the forefront in the use of red light cameras at intersections. Research specifically cited the "halo effect" where driving habits learned at camera-monitored intersections spread throughout Oxnard. According to the latest statistics from the California Office of Traffic Safety, those habits have turned out to be deadly.

Oxnard experienced 1,867 fatal and injury collisions in 2005 making it mile-for-mile driven the second most dangerous among fifty medium-sized California cities (populations between 100,000 and 250,000). In this group, Oxnard ranks number one in overall accidents.

In response to the startling figures, Oxnard Police this week kicked off a strict enforcement campaign to increase the amount of traffic citation revenue. Under an ongoing "Safer Streets" grant program, officers are paid overtime to wait at intersections and issue tickets for violations such as slowing, but not coming to an absolute stop, before turning at a red light. A second California Office of Traffic Safety grant of $450,000 in federal gas tax money will fund drunk driving roadblocks throughout Oxnard next year. A $64,895 grant this year offered additional pay to officers who ticket motorists for neglecting or choosing not to wear a seatbelt. Oxnard's twelve red light cameras also continue to generate millions in revenue by issuing thousands of $360 automated tickets.

Shortly after Oxnard began using red light cameras in 1997, the photo ticketing program was hailed as a complete success in reducing accidents, injuries and red light running. A landmark study from Insurance Institute for Highway Safety insisted in 2001 that these devices caused a wave of safety throughout Oxnard that resulted in a citywide reduction in injury accidents of 29 percent (view full study in PDF format).

"The finding that crash reductions were observed at traffic signals on a citywide basis is consistent with prior behavioral research findings that red light camera enforcement can provide general deterrence against red light violations, with effects not limited to the specific intersections with cameras," insurance industry researcher Richard Retting wrote. "This result is important because the goal of highly conspicuous traffic enforcement is to produce generalized changes in driver behavior with respect to traffic safety laws, not simply to penalize identified violators."

A number of independent studies conducted after Retting's indicate that red light cameras can, in fact, cause an increase in injury accidents (view studies). Critics such as the National Motorists Association point out that the Insurance Institute is funded by companies that profit directly from traffic tickets. Each photo citation in California carries license points allowing insurance companies to raise annual premiums. NMA instead recommends specific engineering improvements such as enhanced signal visibility and longer yellow signal warning times to increase intersection safety without negative side effects such as increased rear end collisions.

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