Coming Technology Could End The Red Light Camera Debate and Make You Safer On the Road

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If cars are about to self-drive they can of course stop at red lights. Think about how that technology could change the safety debate.

As the world moves closer to fully-autonomous vehicles that can operate in almost all conditions without a human driver’s aid, one benefit could emerge that will help all drivers be safer. If driver assist packages like Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” system are to work, they, of course, will have to be able to reliably recognize and stop at stoplights. That part of the technology would make sense to deploy in all vehicles, not just self-driving ones.

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As threats to your safety go, red light running is scarier than you might imagine. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), about 900 people per year die in accidents that point to red light running as the primary cause of the accident. That is about double the annual deaths NHTSA attributes to cell-phone related distracted driving deaths, and more than tire-related failure. You may not realize it, but your new vehicle already comes with multiple safety systems designed to save you in a red light running incident.  Your new vehicle has head and face side impact airbags that are designed to help reduce the incredible forces of a Ford F-150 (America’s most popular nameplate) hitting you from the side. There are also torso airbags to help protect all your innards from being scrambled. These systems are the fastest-acting safety aids in the vehicle, and they have helped to drop the vehicle-related death rate.

Your new vehicle also has forward collision prevention and mitigation. It’s not mandated yet, but unless you went out of your way to avoid it, your new vehicle most likely has it. Nearly every Toyota, Subaru, and Nissan has it for example. This system looks ahead to see an impending forward crash and it stops or slows a vehicle before the crash in many circumstances. A situation with two cars about to have an impact from a cross-intersection crash is not the best scenario for these systems to work perfectly. But they will work if one of the vehicles is already in the path of the other and moving slowly.

As good as these two systems are, they only help minimize the catastrophe. What is really needed is a system that stops a car from speeding straight through a red light at an intersection. Automakers say this is tricky to do, but of course, they all have systems now in testing that can do this. They have to. Chevy’s Cruise Automation, Toyota’s TRI division, and Ford-VW’s Argo AI are all very close to real-world self-driving vehicles. That means they stop themselves at red lights. Back in 2016, a self-driving Uber vehicle made headlines after it ran some red lights in San Fransisco and was caught doing so on camera. However, the technology is developing rapidly, and those types of headlines are not common.


Mainstream vehicles are already benefiting from the research and systems coming out of full-autonomy projects. Toyota is actively seeking to develop two systems. One is called Chauffeur, and it will drive the vehicle for you. The second is called Guardian and it will intervene only when you are about to make a terrible error. Like driving through a red light or stop sign. Think of Guardian as enhanced stability control with the second chance to park the car home safely later that day instead of it being totaled and you possibly injured or killed. Who doesn’t want that? Toyota is betting lots of drivers will, and we expect every automaker will continue to deploy the best safety technology as it matures.

One reason that automakers are reporting that red light recognition is tricky is that full automation is seeking perfection, or darn close to it. But supplemental safety systems don’t have to be perfect. None of them are. Not your anti-lock brakes, not your stability control, certainly not your airbags. They all do their best and we appreciate their best efforts. The same would be true of red light running prevention. There will certainly be those who wish to purposely run red lights. Perhaps a system would still let them, but require that they first stop before proceeding through a red light. Don’t worry about emergency vehicles like police and first-responder vehicles. They already have safety system over-rides. A system that would stop a car at red lights if the driver failed to do so is pretty hard to argue against. Particularly if you think from the perspective of a parent whose child just proceeded through the green light at that intersection.

BestRide reached out to both the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) and IIHS and asked them if either knows of any new red light running prevention systems in the works. Toyota held its cards close to the vest. However, Joseph Young, our contact at IIHS, offered, “A system that could reliably intervene and prevent a car from proceeding through a red light would certainly have the potential to save lives and prevent injuries. We are currently rating vehicles for front crash prevention in car-to-car and car-to-pedestrian scenarios, and we’re encouraged to see many vehicles performing well in those tests.”

One odd benefit of successful red light running prevention systems is that they could put the red light camera industry out of business. We won’t dive deeply into the debate on red light cameras, but let’s just say their services would no longer be needed if the cars themselves would stop if the driver was unable to, opted not to, or simply screwed up and missed a red light. Municipalities that use these cameras point to the safety benefits. Those who don’t like the cameras say it is simply one more revenue generation scheme. Either way, the cameras would not be needed if your car would not run a red light.

Source Notes: Top of Page Image and red light crash death chart courtesy of IIHS