Red-light cameras aim to combat dangerous driving in Memphis

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Speeding, drag racing, and even doing donuts in the middle of the street are issues Mid-South drivers endure on a daily basis.

Several drivers told FOX13 they don’t feel safe on the roads.

“Memphis drivers are too angry, and they drive too, too fast,” Stephanie Gatewood said.

“They treat the streets like it’s a racetrack,” Arielle Adams said.

Many cities across the country face similar issues.

Several cities, including Memphis, have installed red-light cameras to fix the problem.

Memphis had the cameras installed a decade ago. Myron Lowery, Memphis City Court clerk, helped to bring the cameras to Memphis. When he was on the City Council, he proposed the idea.

He then implemented the camera system when he was interim mayor in 2009. Lowery tells FOX13 he felt it would be a good revenue stream for the city.

“I saw that other cities were doing this, they were increasing their revenue, and we’re always looking for ways to increase our revenue,” said Lowery.

According to Lowery, the cameras have delivered on the revenue front.

“So far the City of Memphis has gained $16 million in revenue from people speeding and running the red lights,” said Lowery.

Apart from increasing the revenue for the City of Memphis, Lowery says the cameras have helped Memphis police with staffing by not having to put a dedicated officer at certain intersections to catch red-light runners.

“You don’t have to have a police department employee sitting and watching the infraction,” said Lowery.

While the city makes money off the red-light cameras, they only get the money if drivers actually pay the ticket.

“A red-light ticket will not count against your driving record. That’s what most people know, and they think they don’t have to pay. That’s incorrect,” said Lowery.

Lowery says that his office encourages drivers to pay their red-light tickets. However, if you choose not to pay, debt collectors won’t come after you and there are no penalties added to your driving record. However, Lowery says that consequences can develop over time, especially if a driver consistently gets a red-light camera ticket and refuses to pay.

“Eventually, the police department will note that, and they could lose their license in the long run,” Lowery told FOX13.

The clerk’s office also told FOX13 that if a driver receives three consecutive red-light camera tickets and refuses to pay them, they could end up on what’s called a “tow watch out list.” The clerk’s office describes it as a list of vehicles that will be towed away immediately if their drivers are found to park them in a non-parking zone and are spotted by the Memphis police.

City leaders say there are consequences to not paying a red-light ticket, but a former state lawmaker disagrees. In 2016, former Tennessee State Rep. Andy Holt urged Tennesseans to ignore these types of tickets. He even went as far as to burn one on Facebook Live. Holt’s argument is that red-light tickets are a civil citation in Tennessee and not a criminal offence. Therefore, you don’t really have to pay them.

Lowery insists that is not the case, and people still need to pay. There are also questions about the accuracy of the cameras. Lowery tells FOX13 that each ticket goes through a two-step process. Video is reviewed by both the clerk’s office and the Memphis Police Department to ensure the right driver is being ticketed, if they deserve a ticket at all. However, Lowery says drivers can dispute the ticket if you feel like you were improperly ticketed.

“If they are right, the ticket will be dismissed,” said Lowery.

Drivers have also questioned the effectiveness of the cameras. Lowery says he believes the cameras have made the roads safer.

“People have now come to learn where the cameras are and they’re driving safely,” said Lowery.

Drivers who spoke with FOX13 have different opinions, though. Stephanie Gatewood doesn’t believe they were a good investment.

“I don’t think it’s a good investment because while you catch somebody going through a red light, there’s nobody there to pull them over and give them the ticket on-site,” said Gatewood.

Other drivers, like Israel Williamson and Arielle Adams, believe drivers will continue to drive how they want to, with or without red light cameras.

“Memphis folks are really going to drive how they drive anyway. It don’t matter. They don’t care if the police are right there at the light,” said Williamson.

“What’s it doing for anybody? Nothing. They’re going to keep racing, racing through those red lights and it’s going to keep on causing wrecks in Memphis,” said Adams.

There are a few studies that discuss whether red-light cameras make roads safer or not. According to a 2018 study by the Case Western Reserve University, researchers found that red-light cameras don’t reduce the number of traffic accidents at intersections. The data came from an analysis of collisions over a 12-year span in Texas. Researchers looked at data from when red-light cameras were installed in Houston and then data after citizens voted to remove the cameras. The study found that the red-light cameras led to an 18-percent increase in non-angle crashes, rear-end crashes, and fender benders. After the cameras were removed, the study found there were 26 percent more angle crashes, like t-bone collisions, at intersections. You can read the full study here.

However, another study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety contradicts this study. Researchers with the IIHS found that cameras reduced the fatal red-light running crash rate of large cities by 21 percent and the rate of all types of fatal crashes at signalized intersections by 14 percent. Their study also found that 143,000 people were injured in 2019 in red-light running crashes.

The IIHS even breaks down some of the numbers, saying that in 2019, 846 people were killed in the U.S. in crashes that involved red-light running. You can read their complete study here.

FOX13 asked the clerk’s office for a breakdown of how much the red-light cameras cost and how many people have paid their tickets versus those who haven’t paid. We have not heard back yet.

Even with differing opinions on red-light cameras, drivers in Memphis do agree that all drivers need to be more careful on the roads.

“These are mothers out here; these are kids. I mean, you can end a life like that,” said Adams.