When it comes to reducing fatalities, a new study concludes, red-light cameras are getting the green light.
The study issued Tuesday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that fatal crashes declined 24 percent in 14 large U.S. cities where red-light cameras were installed between 1996 and 2004.
On Long Island, officials say it's too soon to know if red-light cameras sparked a similar drop in fatalities in 2010. Nassau and Suffolk counties began installing the cameras in August 2009, and data is only beginning to trickle in. The law authorized 50 cameras each in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
The Insurance Institute, a nonprofit funded by auto insurers, estimated that the cameras have saved 159 lives between 2004 and 2008 in 14 of the biggest U.S. cities. The study looked at 99 U.S. cities with populations over 200,000, and compared the rate of fatal crashes between two periods - 1992 to 1996 and 2004 to 2008.
Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association in Waunakee, Wis., which opposes red-light cameras on due-process grounds, was critical of the study's methodology. A reduction in traffic fatalities during the periods studied "have been seen across the board," and can't be solely attributed to red-light cameras, Biller said.
"There were quite a lot of safety enhancements to motor vehicles" that should be given some credit, Biller said.
Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute, defended the study, saying it took into account falling crash fatality rates overall by looking at cities without red-light cameras.
"Crash rates fell in all cities we looked at," Rader said. "But crash rates fell much faster in camera cities."
In Nassau, Chris Mistron, the county's traffic-safety educator, estimated that cameras are operational at about 40 intersections. Gil Anderson, commissioner of public works in Suffolk County, said about 35 intersections have cameras.
Drivers running a red light in New York State can expect a $50 fine. In Nassau, they added up to at least $10 million in 2010.
Ryan Lynch, Long Island coordinator with the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said the research shows that red-light cameras save lives and free up police do other law enforcement.
"There is an opportunity to expand red-light cameras on Long Island, where there are a lot of dangerous intersections," Lynch said. "I think it continues to bolster the case these type of initiatives are based purely on safety."