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Safety or scam? Red light cameras under scrutiny

(CBS News) Cameras that catch drivers running red lights are supposedly installed for safety purposes, but critics are now raising their voices -- calling them highway robbery.

The Federal Highway Administration says over a period of five years ending in 2010, nearly 800 people a year on average died in red light-running accidents.

Enter the red light camera: those automated sentries standing watch at intersections, snapping pictures of all who venture through after the light has changed. The cameras are in use in 541 communities across 24 states and Washington, D.C.

Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Union, said the issue is about safety at intersections. "The cameras create safer intersections," he said.

Asked how a red light camera helps with not paying attention, Hunt said, "Red light cameras change behavior at those intersections. If the light changes to yellow, instead of hitting the gas and going through it, you are going to hit the brakes and stop."

But the cameras have their critics. Michael Kubosh calls them "scameras." He said, "They just scam the public, they're not for safety."

Brothers Michael and Paul Kubosh led a successful rebellion against red light cameras in Houston. The city took the cameras down more than a year ago. The brothers say the only reason cities install the cameras in is to make money.

It's estimated that Houston earned $44 million during the four years the cameras were operating.

The question is, do they make people safer? A Federal Highway Administration study gave a mixed answer. At 132 intersections using red light cameras, right-angle crashes -- what are commonly known as broadsides -- dropped 25 percent. But rear-end crashes went up 15 percent.

Dr. John Large, a public health researcher at the University of South Florida, said red light cameras are "not helping drivers drive more safely."

Large said he thinks there's a better way to address red light running: make yellow lights longer. He said, "Increasing yellow light times have shown that red light-running incidences have dropped near or around 80 percent."

New York City firefighter Tom Buttaro knows all about it. He received a ticket after a camera caught his wife going through a red light. Buttaro said, "The light was timed at 3.9 seconds. When my wife Angela went through the intersection, I did some research and found out the proper timing of the light is 5.4 seconds, a whole second and a half shorter than it is supposed to be."

On a road with a 55 mph speed limit, that didn't give her enough time to stop. Buttaro says he's begun to wonder what the motive really is behind the red light cameras.

He said, "Unfortunately, the further I look into it, the less about safety is what it's becoming. It's definitely looking more like a money-grab than a safety-initiated policy."

It's why some communities are focusing a critical eye on the cameras, and, in some cases, slamming the brakes on their programs.

For Anna Werner's full report, watch the video above.

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