How It Works: Red-Light Cameras

Confession: I’ve been caught by a red-light camera. It’s pretty much the only smudge on an otherwise spotless driving record (although I’m not sure if that’s a testament to my skills behind the wheel or just sheer luck). Either way, receiving a ticket in the mail from the city of Chicago with a close-up shot of my frazzled, late-to-an-interview face really stunk. Especially when it cost me $100 and I didn’t even get the job.

While the effectiveness of red-light cameras is often up for debate, red-light running is one of the top causes of accidents, injuring over 165,000 people per year, killing hundreds, and costing about $7 billion in property damage, medical bills, and insurance increases.

A 2011 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that large cities with red-light cameras saw a 24 percent decrease in fatalities caused by red-light runners. The fact that running red lights still accounts for 22 percent of traffic accidents makes the demise of red-light cameras seem pretty unlikely.

So, if red-light cameras are here to stay, let’s take a look at how they actually work. What cues the cameras to snap that oh-so-flattering headshot of the driver, followed by a close-up of their license plate? Are they just endlessly snapping, hoping to catch rule-breakers in the act? Believe it or not, there’s actually a lot of science behind those eyes in the sky.

The triggers

Although we’ve all noticed the ominous cameras keeping watch over our intersections, the process actually starts underground. While trigger technology varies, most red-light systems use induction loops buried in the asphalt. Induction loops are made by layering 2 electrical wires on top of each other in rectangular loops. The wires are connected to a power source that supplies electricity and a meter that measures the current running through the loops.

If you had the pleasure of sitting through physics class in your formative years, this should all sound pretty familiar. But in case you “missed that day” (or opted to take botany, ahem), the power source creates a magnetic field, sending a constant, measureable flow of electricity through the wires.

When the light turns red, the system turns on. The meter monitors the current in the wires, and if a massive hunk of metal rolls over those wires, the meter will detect the shift in electric flow. In order for the meter to send a signal to the computer operating the camera, the car must be traveling at a particular speed to avoid ticketing drivers who are simply stopped on top of the loop.

Caught on camera

Typically, red-light systems have cameras at all 4 corners of an intersection, ready to catch traffic violators at different angles. If the trigger sends a signal to the computer that a car has passed through the induction loop, the camera automatically starts snapping.

The first photo will show the car entering the intersection, while the second shot catches the driver passing through the crossroads, focusing on their license plate. The computer then records the date, time, intersection, speed, and elapsed time from when the light first turned red and attaches it to the image.

With the specifics of your slipup detailed on the photo, the police have all the evidence they need to look up your address, drop your photo and fine in an envelope, and send the little surprise your way.

“But I wasn’t driving!”

So what happens if you receive a red-light camera ticket, but it’s a case of mistaken identity (say, your good friend Adam was breaking the rules in your ride)? Like any other ticket, you have the right to contest the charges in court. Unfortunately, in some states, red-light cameras only capture the license plate. While you’re still able to contest the ticket, you’ll likely have a harder time proving it wasn’t you.

If you can prove that the person behind the wheel wasn’t you, a judge can decide to throw the ticket out, effectively saving you the fine, any points issued, and a possible jump in your insurance rate. (And if you’re an Esurance policyholder, you can check out our handy What If® Calculator to see how a ticket or accident-related claim could impact your rates.)

The aftermath

Since paying my debt to the city of Chicago, I’ve been much more cognizant of the amount of time I need to make it through an intersection. The reality is I got off easy. Causing an accident and injuring myself or others would have been infinitely worse. Being punctual is great, but it’s better to be a few minutes late and arrive in one piece.

Share your story

Have you ever been caught running a red light on camera? Did the experience teach you a lesson in taking your time? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Related Links

Are red-light cameras actually causing accidents?
Talking tickets: Who’s most likely to get them (Infographic)
Will synchronized traffic lights solve the congestion problem?

How Is Fault Determined in an Accident?

My mother always told me that it’s rude to point fingers. I mean, they’re called accidents for a reason. Nonetheless, when it comes to insurance, liability is part of the deal. Determining fault in an accident can be tricky — laws differ from state to state and interpretations of those laws run the gamut.

While it’s always good to be familiar with your local laws, here are some common questions we get about fault and how it might impact your insurance policy.

“If the police say it wasn’t my fault, then obviously my insurance company will agree, right?”

Not exactly. While the outcome often matches the police report, your insurance company has the final at-fault say. They’ll collect all sorts of evidence, including the police report and witness statements, to come to a conclusion. Some states have processes in place to appeal the decision, but, in most scenarios, the insurance company makes the call.

“I saved Bambi’s life and hit a tree instead. Who’s picking up the tab for my new bumper?”

You know the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished”? Well, unfortunately, that’s kind of the case here. There’s no doubt the deer is thankful for your quick reflexes, but he won’t be able to pay for the damage. Thankfully, if you have collision coverage, your insurer will help cover the cost. Keep in mind, however, that it’s likely you’ll be found at fault in a collision with a tree (even if you are Bambi’s hero), which could cause your insurance rate to go up.

This is pretty standard when it comes to solo accidents. Whether black ice causes you to slide into a guardrail or a massive downpour puts you on top of your neighbor’s fence, if you’re the only one involved, you’ll typically be found at fault and your insurance will probably be impacted. So protect yourself and your rates by remembering to take your time and drive safely.

And if you ever do hit an animal out on the road, your comprehensive coverage will kick in. Comprehensive coverage protects you against things like vandalism, natural disasters, and yes, animal-related accidents.

Plus, with comprehensive coverage, your insurer will help pay for the damage, so you aren’t as likely to see a drastic change in your rates.

“I was in a fender bender last week. I’ll admit, eating Chinese while driving was a bad idea, and I ended up being at fault. Will my insurance rates skyrocket?”

It depends. Your rates won’t rise automatically, but your insurer will look at the evidence, as well as your driving record, and assess your payments. If you’ve been accident-free since ‘73, you probably won’t see a crazy jump in price. We wouldn’t want one mistake to ruin that kind of a record.

If your rates do rise, the best way to bring them back to earth is to turn over a new leaf, put down the chopsticks, and keep your hands at 9 and 3. Safe driving is always rewarded.

“I parked my car on the street in a less-than-awesome neighborhood. The next morning, I was down 2 windows. Am I at fault?”

Great way to start the day, right? The good news is if you have comprehensive coverage, your insurance may help cover the damage. Even though you parked in a sketchy part of town, comprehensive coverage protects you from vandalism (while renters and homeowners insurance will help pay for items stolen from your car).

Want to learn more about local fault laws?

Insurance companies do their best to make sure you don’t take the fall for an accident that wasn’t your fault, but it always helps to know the rules ahead of time. Visit your state’s DMV site or call us at 1-800-ESURANCE (1-800-378-7262).

If you’re already an Esurance policyholder and you’re curious about how a recent ticket or claim might impact your policy, you’re in luck! Log into your account and check out the Esurance What If® Calculator — our one-of-a-kind, super handy, hypothetical calculator that helps you estimate how certain events could affect your insurance rates.

Related Links

How Fault Is Determined in an Accident
Comprehensive and Collision
Quiz: Comprehensive vs. Collision

7 Tricks for Car Camping in Comfort

Every summer, my girlfriends and I leave the city behind and travel north for a weekend of camping and canoeing. But what started as a hardcore backpacking trip 7 years ago has morphed into an increasingly posh 3 days of car camping (US Weekly included). Though it means losing some Girl Scout cred, my aging body certainly appreciates it.

With each passing year, I naturally pick up inspiration for the following year’s trip. What I’ve come up with aren’t MacGyver-like tactics (I leave those to the outdoor professionals), they’re simply tricks for making a weekend in the woods more comfortable.

Note: though what I’m about to describe doesn’t go as far as glamping, it’s also not for the hardcore. This is for the person who’s always been a bit hesitant to camp and needs baby steps to get started.

Be comfortable — you’re car camping after all

I used to be of the mentality that camping meant roughing it. I was supposed to be achy in the morning. It was a sign that I had broken out of my comfort zone (quite literally). But when you plan to be active during the day, sore muscles are really just a pain in the butt … and the back, legs, and shoulders.

1. Pack a pillow (and an air mattress)

When I first started camping, I packed light. Instead of a pillow, I rolled up some clothes. My sleeping pad was small and portable, but also thin, narrow, and all-but-worthless. A few years ago, it dawned on me that I have an entire car trunk at my disposal and pillows don’t take up much room. Like magic, the annual crick in my neck disappeared.

This year, I had an even greater epiphany: Why not bring along an air mattress and battery-operated pump? For about $40, I transformed my tent into a polyester palace. Why didn’t I think of this before?! The mattress folds up into its own little bag for easy carrying and storage and I can roll around in my tent without ever falling onto the hard ground. Comfort, baby.

2. Bring earplugs and an eye mask

Unless you’re camping in the middle of nowhere, chances are you’ll have neighbors. And for some reason, fresh air seems to make people snore. Earplugs can be a savior by blocking out unwanted sounds like crying babies, annoying campfire songs, and (thank goodness) snoring.

Eye masks aren’t quite as imperative, but tents do let in a lot of light and if you want to sleep past sunrise, you’d be wise to pack one.

Be practical

3. Wear a headlamp

Lanterns and flashlights are great and all, but headlamps are a car camper’s (and actually any camper’s) best friend. When I arrive at my campsite after dark and get yelled at for leaving my headlights on, I can simply turn on my headlamp and still have both hands free to set up my tent, light my campfire, and find something that’s buried at the bottom of my bag.

4. Eat out if you’re so inclined

When my friends and I first started our camping tradition, we brought cooking gear complete with spork and collapsible cup. But for a vegetarian who hates veggie dogs, campfire cooking can get a bit complicated (plus, who wants to wash dishes on vacation?). Though I felt guilty at first, I’ve warmed to the idea of eating out while camping. In our case, we head to a roadhouse about a mile from our campsite. For $15, we get a good meal, live music, and local flavor. To me, that beats canned chili any time.

Of course, if you’re truly in the middle of nowhere, you’ll need to bring provisions. But they can still be delicious. Bread, fancy cheese, olives, and some red wine make for a lovely night by the campfire (just don’t forget the corkscrew!).

Be organized

Sure, it’s great to toss everything into your trunk and go, but a little preparation never hurts.

5. Get to know the area ahead of time

Getting out into nature often means getting out of GPS range. While it’s fun to get lost on back roads for a little while, it’s also fun to know where the heck you’re going before dark. If you’ve booked a campsite ahead of time (which I recommend in the summer), make sure you know how to get there and what’s around. Can you buy food once you arrive or should you stock up beforehand? Is there a coffee shop or should you bring your caffeine IV and instant coffee packets? What activities are available in the area?

6. Pack smart

While I do condone bringing a trunkload of comfort provisions, one thing I will caution against is packing willy-nilly. Separate your things according to how they’re used so you can easily find what you need when you’re setting up camp. For instance, put your tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, and pump in one bag. Toiletries in another. And clothing separated out either by outfit or by type.

Most important, bring empty bags. They’re the best. Trash bags, Ziploc bags, grocery bags … you never know when you’ll need a bag. Clothes get wet and muddy, beer cans accumulate, and food needs to be preserved.

7. Keep food out of reach

If you’re new to camping, you may not be familiar with all the little critters that like to hang out near campsites. Do your research ahead of time to find out which woodland creatures inhabit your campsite. If the animals are small, keeping food in your car should be safe. But if you’re in bear country, you’ll need to hang your food from a tree to keep from going hungry. No matter where you are, never leave food in your tent. Seriously.

If you’ve always been wary of camping, hopefully these tricks will help make it a little less daunting. Be comfortable. Be practical. Be organized. Be safe!

(And if you need insurance for your RV or travel trailer for your next car camping road trip, we can help.)