10 Facts You Should Know about Traffic Cameras

Did you know that cameras on traffic lights reduce the number of car crashes in the US? There are 6 different types of traffic cameras, each with their own purpose and controversy.

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UPDATED: May 24, 2022

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Written By: Laura BerryReviewed By: Joel OhmanUPDATED: May 24, 2022Fact Checked

Here's what you need to know...

  • Traffic cameras and auto-enforcers are turning up everywhere
  • There are many different kinds of cameras watching our roads
  • Auto-enforcement cameras document violations and send citations
  • Basic traffic cameras are usually in place to monitor traffic patterns
  • Although ruled constitutional, many Americans want them banned
  • Learn what to expect from the various cameras on our public roads

No matter how much controversy they cause, no matter how many court cases are filed against them, cameras on our public roadways are not just unavoidable, they’re rapidly growing in numbers.

The data shows cameras on traffic lights decrease accidents and save lives, all while making AND saving money, so it’s clear these robo-cops will always win.

Read on so you know what to expect from these eyes in the skies.

And be sure you have the best car insurance available. Compare rates among several companies here!

1. There are Many Different Types with Far Different Purposes

Not all cameras serve the same purpose. Below we will provide descriptions of the most common traffic cameras you may run across.

Red Light Cameras

The most common auto-enforcer on the roads today is the red light camera.

As of March 2017, there were 24 states and 426 American communities currently operating red light cameras in at least one location.

How They Spot You

These cameras are activated when there is motion passing the stop bar after the signal turns red. Most red-light cameras on the roads today capture a 12-second digital video of the violation, along with two images of the license plate.

How You Spot Them

The most common red light enforcers have a camera housed in a box next to a light that drivers can see flash as it takes pictures.

Red light cameras are usually positioned on the side of the road facing the intersection, and most states post signs to warn drivers just before the intersection or next to the camera itself.

Speed Cameras

Hoping to slow down drivers with a lead foot are the second most common auto-enforcers out there today: speed cameras.

With 142 communities within 12 states using speed cameras as of March 2017, these auto-enforcers shouldn’t be ignored.

Designed with the same radar and laser technology used by law enforcement, these cameras are triggered when a vehicle exceeds about 10 mph over the documented speed limit.

How They Spot You

Once triggered, the camera captures images of the license plate, and a video of the incident is usually recorded as well for additional proof. The date, time, speed, and location are all archived with the camera’s recording.

The Chicago DOT provided a helpful “How it Works” explanation and diagram on how their speed cameras function:

How to Spot Speed Cameras on Traffic Lights

Speed cameras can be found in bulky, brightly colored boxes or look more basic with just the protected camera on top of a tall pole.

Like red light cameras, many speed camera sites have warning signs that drivers can see just before the camera has eyes on them.

 Stop Sign Cameras

All the hype must go to red light and speed cameras because it’s nearly impossible to find any information on stop sign cameras. The state laws on them aren’t even listed by the IIHS or GHSA.

Only two locations in the U.S. have stop sign cameras listed on their DOT websites: California and the District of Columbia.

DC.gov states that it has eight working stop sign cameras and even lists their exact intersection locations.

How They Spot You

Stop sign cameras use radar to detect if vehicles stop, roll through, or drive right past the stop sign. It is not specified how many images are taken of the vehicle or if video clips are also recorded.

How You Spot Them

These cameras are usually found in large boxes. Like the other auto-enforcers, most will have a sign nearby warning motorists that it is a camera-enforced stop.

School Bus Cameras

The newest form of auto-enforcers on the roads today aren’t stationary. They catch drivers illegally passing school buses.

Even states, like Wyoming, that don’t use any other type of auto-enforcers are having school bus cameras installed. In fact, in 2014, Wyoming became the first state in the nation to mandate that every one of its public school buses has cameras attached.

By 2015, 70 school districts had school bus cameras installed, 13 states already had laws that allowed them, and seven more states were working on bills to get them approved.

How They Spot You

The cameras are activated when the bus stops and deploys the stop signs and flashing lights. They capture photographs of the vehicle and a short video of the violation, which includes time, date, and location stamp.

How You Spot Them

These auto-enforcers are found on the sides of school buses. They are usually in a black protective box. They look different depending on the company that installed them, but they all function in a similar manner.

Protecting Children

Before school bus cameras, a police officer would have to speed past the school bus in order to catch a driver, which only put the children in more danger.

In 2014, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services followed 97,000 bus drivers in 29 states and recorded over 76,000 vehicles illegally passing school buses each day.

Hopefully, these cameras help to keep the innocent youth of our nation safe as they ride to and from school each day.

Dummy Cameras on Traffic Lights

Pseudo-cameras are used to get drivers to obey the law, without law enforcement having to lift a finger.

The state that is most commonly known for using dummy cameras is New York.

NY DOT publicly admits to frequently moving auto-enforcers, as well as using fake cameras so that motorists can’t memorize where the working ones are.

Maryland has been using dummy cameras since 2013 and claims they serve another purpose. Police Chief McLaughlin of Laurel said:

“These cameras are a way of showing it’s not about the money.”

Traffic Surveillance Cameras

Surveillance cameras cause quite the upheaval even though they will never cost anyone an expensive, unexpected moving violation.

Many people spot cameras on traffic lights at various intersections and assume they are being spied on and recorded against their will.

In addition to being disliked for infringing on privacy, traffic surveillance cameras are often confused with ticket-generating auto-enforcers.

Their Purpose: Vermont

According to Joshua Schultz, the project manager at the Agency of Transportation in Vermont, the true purpose of these cameras is for: “situational awareness”— monitoring traffic patterns, accidents, and poor road conditions.

The VT cameras store a snapshot taken by each camera every five minutes, which is available to be viewed publicly on the “VTrans” website.

Lieutenant Garry Scott of the Vermont State Police said his agency would request access to the cameras and their data only in the event of “something horrific, like a major crash or an Amber Alert.”

Their Purpose: Missouri

To ease residents’ worry or anger, the Missouri DOT provides a lengthy explanation of why they use traffic surveillance cameras.

MO’s DOT assures readers that their traffic cameras are installed for the sole purpose of “detecting the presence of vehicles in order to provide the best distribution of green time based on traffic demand.”

With the help of the below image, they illustrate that their cameras only focus on vehicles as they enter predetermined zones.– How You Spot Them

Unlike speed, red light or stop sign cameras, traffic surveillance cameras are much less bulky and colorful, and they are attached to the traffic light pole.

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2. They are Used Worldwide

Auto-enforcers not only didn’t originate in the U.S., but they are also more prevalent in other countries.

Began Elsewhere

Red light cameras were first developed in the Netherlands and were ready to be sold on the market as early as 1965. Other countries, like Israel, quickly followed suit through the late 60s.

The first bill approving red light cameras in the U.S. wasn’t even signed until almost 30 years later in New York City in 1993.

As reported by the IIHS: Auto-enforcers aren’t just used in the U.S. In Canada, Australia, Austria, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Taiwan, and a number of other countries in Europe and the United Kingdom, there are many more cameras rolling per capita OUTSIDE of the United States.

In fact, auto-enforcers are generating the majority of the moving violations in some countries. For example, in the United Kingdom, about 50 percent of all speeding tickets result from what they call their “safety cameras.”

Creative Monitoring

While the U.S. is getting flooded with backlash and legal claims against its traffic cameras, other countries are getting creative on what violations their cameras can catch.

In the Netherlands and Israel, they have traffic cameras set up to monitor tailgating. And London is working on cameras that can catch motorists running red lights and speeding all with just one device.

3. They are Surrounded by Controversy

The American public hasn’t taken well to auto-enforcers since they began being used in the U.S. in the 90s.

An article posted by NPR states: “If enforcement cameras are all the rage for roads, blowback from drivers is the new road rage.”

Below are the 10 most common arguments against traffic cameras:

  1. They make motorists slam on their brakes, which increases rear-end collisions
  2. They violate due process because there is no live witness
  3. The vehicle owner is unfairly penalized when he/she wasn’t driving
  4. They are a violation of privacy
  5. The citation is unlawful because it is not given in person
  6. Their real purpose it to fill government budget holes
  7. The delay in receiving the ticket makes challenging it nearly impossible
  8. The money that goes to the private contracting company creates a conflict of interest
  9. The locations, signage, and light-timing are chosen and set up to trap motorists
  10. More surveillance means more possibilities for privacy abuses

These are all fair arguments that are each addressed in the following section below.

These cameras document our mistakes, then deliver an unexpected, humiliating guilty charge along with a mandatory fee that was never part of the monthly budget. Auto-enforcers are bound to cause a level of outrage.

4. They are Continually Ruled Legal and Constitutional

There have been rulings from the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 9th, and 11th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals that all found red light and other safety camera programs to be legal and constitutional.

Below, the 10 most common arguments against the cameras are addressed:

#1 – Rear-End Collisions

Yes, in some cases auto-enforcers cause motorists to slam on their brakes — increasing rear-end collisions — but they reduce the deadlier T-bone or broadside crashes, which are more common at intersections.

#2 – Due Process

There is usually not a live witness at the time of the violation when auto-enforcers are used, but by providing photographs (and often video) for evidence and by having a live, trained professional review the recorded incidence, there is no violation of due process.

#3 – Vehicle Owner

In 2015, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled issuing citations to vehicle owners or lessees — regardless of who was driving — constitutional. The courts encourage individuals to keep this in mind and be extra cautious when lending their vehicles to others.

#4 – Privacy Laws

Traffic cameras have been ruled to not be a violation of privacy numerous times in the U.S. courts.

According to a 2009 ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, “no one has a fundamental right to avoid being seen by a camera on a public street.”

Cameras only take photographs or video of a vehicle when the motorist has violated a clearly posted traffic law, therefore endangering others.

#5 – Officer Involved

Just like a parking ticket, there are no laws stating that a moving violation needs to be given in person. An auto-enforcer-caught offense can be recorded by a camera, confirmed by a police officer, and mailed to the vehicle owner.

#6 – Money Makers

Fines incurred by auto-enforcers definitely help local governments financially, but not as many people think. Only about 20 percent of that money goes back to the government; the rest goes to the private companies that install and own the cameras.

#7 – Challenges Accepted

Since the evidence is reviewed before being mailed, there is definitely a delay before the vehicle owner receives the citation. However, just like with any moving violation, the individual has adequate time to challenge the ticket and appear in court.

#8 – Legal Partnership

The local city and state governments must pay private companies to install and manage the traffic cameras because they don’t have the manpower or expertise to run them themselves. This is not a conflict of interest, but rather a company getting paid to increase the safety of our public roads.

#9 – Regulated Use

The locations chosen for auto-enforcers are areas in need of improvement that have become dangerous. States are required to follow the Federal DOT Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways in regard to all these matters.

#10 – Helpful Surveillance

The cameras on our public roads are not designed to film to the detail and duration people fear — neither the caliber of camera or amount of storage available would allow for it.

Auto-enforcers only record the violation as it’s happening, and traffic cameras only show live feed for road safety monitoring

The defensive arguments, court cases filed, and fears traffic cameras cause are all valid, but with some research, we can all become more knowledgeable on the true functions and abilities of these cameras.

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5. Their Purpose Isn’t to Replace Humans

The cameras spread across the U.S. are not there so we can have fewer law enforcement officers keeping our roads safe.

Cameras are put in place to supplement the tireless efforts of the men and women serving our communities.

Not Enough Patrols

There could never be enough patrols on the roads to enforce all of the speed limits and intersection signs and signals. With cameras, motorists are much more likely to get caught if they choose to ignore clearly set safety laws.

Saving More Lives

Cameras enforce traffic laws without putting more people in danger. As the IIHS explained:

“Without cameras, enforcement is difficult and often dangerous. In order to stop a red light runner, officers usually have to follow the vehicle through the red light, endangering themselves as well as other motorists and pedestrians.”

Bigger Issues

Cameras can make our roads and our communities safer. Rather than having officers out monitoring speeds and intersection stops, they can be at the station training, educating, and being available to respond to calls of a much greater magnitude.

6. Their Purpose Isn’t to Spy on You

When people see cameras perched above them, it is natural for them to feel watched.

There are many cameras in the world set up for the sole purpose of watching. But, traffic cameras are simply not designed or funded for that purpose.

When we reached out to Louisiana’s DOTD, Janice P. Williams, P.E., Chief Engineer, stated,

“LA DOTD utilizes cameras to monitor traffic and to activate signals. LA DOTD utilizes cameras to provide real-time information on traffic conditions. We also use them to tell the signal to change when a vehicle is at an intersection. We do not own any cameras being used for traffic enforcement. None of our cameras are used to record data.”

Eyes on the Road

Traffic surveillance or monitoring cameras are there so that specific parts of the public roadways can be viewed for traffic patterns, accidents, severe weather, etc. Auto-enforcers are turned on when someone breaks a clearly posted law that all drivers agree to follow upon getting behind the wheel.

Citation Images

The images taken by these cameras are of your vehicle and license plate. In much of the U.S., the driver doesn’t even factor into the equation. Only in Arizona, California, Oregon, and Colorado is there a photograph taken of the driver as part of the evidence.

Public Roads = Public Property

People shouldn’t feel that these safety cameras invade their privacy. As stated by the IIHS:

There’s no reason to expect privacy on a public road. Driving is a regulated activity, and people who obtain licenses are agreeing to abide by certain rules.

Shalom Hakkert, a visiting institute scholar studying automated enforcement practices around the world, explained the purpose of these cameras:

“The goal of automated enforcement, with its huge capacity, is to significantly increase the objective and perceived chances of being caught, thus creating a change in behavior that will translate into a crash reduction.”

7. There’s No Map or Directory of Them

“We the people” like to be informed and feel a semblance of control in the situations that affect our daily lives.

One of the things that really bothers people about the cameras popping up all over our public roadways is the very little information we have on them.

Many Unknowns

On most roads today, a motorist is bound to see a handful of cameras in one short drive. Someone who hasn’t already done extensive research on the subject wouldn’t know the purpose of those cameras.

It’s unlikely a curious citizen will find answers to these most common questions:

  • Was that camera live?
  • Was that a law-enforcing camera?
  • What was that camera watching or looking for?
  • Who views the material documented by that camera?
  • Are the images and videos (including me!) saved forever?

We all have the “right” to know the answers to such questions when we see cameras above us, but unfortunately, the information on each specific camera is not readily available or easy to find.

No Available Funds

Chicago, D.C., Missouri, New York, and Virginia have dedicated DOTs that do an excellent job of explaining what types of cameras they use, how they work, and in some cases, even where they are located, but most states don’t have the time and/or money to update their websites in such detail.

Element of Surprise

Sometimes the lack of information is on purpose.

N.Y. DOT is known for frequently moving cameras around and using dummy cameras so that motorists can’t memorize their locations.

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8. Not Every State has Them . . . YET

There is no directory, map, or list of them, but every state uses traffic surveillance cameras of some kind —even if just for basic traffic and weather updates. But not every state allows law-enforcing cameras.

According to the March 2017 update from IIHS, there are only three states in the U.S. that prohibit speed or red light cameras without exceptions: Maine, Mississippi, and West Virginia.

Darin Bergquist, Secretary of Transportation of South Dakota, told us,

“South Dakota does not have sufficient problems to warrant [traffic camera] use.”

Other states may not use them for different reasons, but this practicality demonstrates states are using prudence when deciding when and where to implement camera use.

As of March 2017, there were 12 states that use speed cameras, 24 states that use red-light cameras, and 14 states that use both. All of the U.S. might not currently use auto-enforcers, but they are rapidly spreading.

9. They Save and Make Money

By preventing motorists from running red lights and stop signs and from driving faster than posted speed limits, auto-enforcers save lives and reduce injuries, which in turn saves a whole lot of money.

Saving Money: Accidents

The NHTSA reported that the 33,780 traffic fatalities in 2012 cost our society $216 billion. If auto-enforcers continue to decreased traffic deaths by about 25 percent, our nation would save about $54 billion annually!

A moving violation will always cost less than a hospital bill, totaled car, or funeral.

Saving Money: Man Power

Traffic cameras also save money by cutting down on the law enforcement needed to actively patrol our roads.

As stated by the IIHS: “The manpower required to police intersections on a regular basis would make it prohibitively expensive. In contrast, camera programs can pay for themselves by requiring people who break the law to shoulder the cost of enforcing it.”

If a camera can sit on location and be around-the-clock ready to record violations, why pay more money to have an officer risk his or her life to do the same thing less efficiently?

Cash Cows

They also make money — quite a bit actually. In 2013, Florida’s red-light cameras collected $52 million, Cleveland made $5.8 million from cameras in its school zones, and in 2014, Montgomery County made $16.6 million from its speed cameras.

These are just a few examples of the 570 communities with active cameras across our nation.

Money Motivates

One of the biggest complaints is that auto-enforcers are installed for the money. While the income isn’t the only reason, it’s certainly a benefit to local governments.

People may feel the motives are wrong, but the fact that these cameras make money will only encourage more to be approved and installed.

As a 2009 7th Circuit Court of Appeals case explained, “a system of photographic evidence reduces the costs of law enforcement and increases the proportion of all traffic offenses that are detected . . . That the city’s system raises revenue does not condemn it. Rather, a system that simultaneously raises money and improves compliance with traffic laws has much to recommend it.”

Or do they…

10. They Reduce Crashes and Save Lives

Traffic cameras are set up across our country to make our roads safer. Georgia’s DOT confirmed this. We contacted Andrew J. Heath, P.E., State Traffic Engineer, who said,

Georgia DOT has partnered with local jurisdictions on the installation of cameras as an additional countermeasure to reduce the severity and frequency of severe crashes at select intersection.”

Proven Results

Seven years of data from 50 intersections in Houston shows that red-light cameras reduced collisions by about 28 percent, and another seven-year-study in six Virginia communities found an even greater 42 percent decrease.

Between 2005 and 2013, crashes of all types were down at Chicago intersections suited with cameras:

  • Right-angle (T-bone) crashes down by 40 percent
  • Rear-end crashes down by 18 percent
  • All crashes at those intersections down by 30 percent

The Institute for Transportation Research and Education at NC State found Raleigh’s cameras to be decreasing deadly collisions as well:

  • Right-angle crashes down by 42 percent
  • Rear-end crashes down by 25 percent
  • All crashes down by 17 percent

In a study performed on crash data from 2004-2008, in 14 of the largest U.S. cities, IIHS found:

Red-light cameras saved 159 lives and reduced traffic fatalities by 24 percent.

The statistics make it pretty difficult to be against cameras on our public roadways.

Accurate and Reliable

“The research is conclusive that they make intersections safer,” says Jackie Gillan, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

“If you run a red light and put somebody in danger, I think a ticket is a small price to pay.”

Cameras are arguably the most reliable and accurate law enforcers available today.

“When you’re taken to an emergency room, everybody wants the latest technology to save their lives. Well, this is the latest technology to save your life.”

The more you learn about the cameras on our roads today, the more you’ll realize their far-reaching benefits.

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A former insurance producer, Laura understands that education is key when it comes to buying insurance. She has happily dedicated many hours to helping her clients understand how the insurance marketplace works so they can find the best car, home, and life insurance products for their needs.

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Written by Laura Berry
Former Insurance Agent Laura Berry

Joel Ohman is the CEO of a private equity backed digital media company. He is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, author, angel investor, and serial entrepreneur who loves creating new things, whether books or businesses. He has also previously served as the founder and resident CFP® of a national insurance agency, Real Time Health Quotes. He has an MBA from the University of South Florida. Jo...

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Reviewed by Joel Ohman
Founder & CFP® Joel Ohman

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