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What is the overall effect on safety when cameras are installed at intersections to detect traffic violations?

Red-light cameras, as they are commonly known, have been controversial in the Lake County area and in several other cities across the country. Their advocates present them on public safety grounds, as a way to prevent people from running red lights by using technology to automatically issue a ticket to violators.

There are several concerns, however, that accompany use of this tactic. Civil liberties proponents argue that the specter of Big Brother lurks in letting machines run roughshod over rights by immediately issuing traffic tickets. Others say that local governments install the cameras not to improve safety, but to cynically grab increased revenue from traffic fines.

And then there is the straightforward safety concern that if people suddenly slam on their brakes to avoid red-light tickets, it could cause car collisions instead of preventing them.

Illinois Yellow Light Proposal

In May, the Illinois House of Representatives considered a proposal to add an extra second to yellow lights at intersections where red-light cameras are present. The proposal made it through the Illinois Senate, but it did not pass the House.

Supporters of the proposal pointed to a study done at Texas A & M University. The study indicated that accidents could be reduced by up to 40 percent by using longer yellow lights. The number of tickets for red-light camera violations would also be reduced, because drivers would have more time to stop or get through intersections safely.

Opponents argued that longer yellow lights would hurt, not help, efforts to improve safety. One of those opponents was Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. "Lengthening yellow lights has adverse safety implications," the mayor's office said in a statement.

The mayor may have a point. Research on the effectiveness of red-light cameras in the Lake County area is ongoing. But one recent study by a University of Illinois expert of 39 Chicago intersections found an increase in accidents, not a decrease, after the cameras were installed.

Some of those accidents could be rear-end collisions when drivers stop too suddenly while trying to avoid an automatically issued ticket.

Improving safety at red-light intersections, it would seem, is not always black and white.

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