How Do You Know If a Red Light Camera Caught You?

Red light cameras aren't snapping pictures constantly. Here's how they really work, and how you'll find out if you've run afoul of one.

The looming, almost mythical, threat of a red light camera is one that’s probably piqued every driver at some point.

Obviously, you shouldn’t be intentionally running red lights willy-nilly. But even the best drivers have tried to beat a yellow light, had it turn red above them and thought, “I hope there aren’t any cops around.”

Whether you think red light cameras are a reasonable safety measure or 1984-level creepy, you’ve probably wondered how they work at some point. They’re something of a film trope. Nicolas Cage notably used one to decipher a National Treasure clue.

But how common are they at real-life traffic intersections? And if one does snap a picture of you, how will you know?

How Do Red Light Cameras Work?

The cameras themselves actually don’t “track” when a car goes through a red light. They interface with sensors installed in the road that do the tracking. David Reischer, a traffic law attorney at, says these sensors “trigger the camera” when a vehicle enters the intersection and passes the stop line.

However, what they actually photograph can vary from state to state, according to Jeff Westover, a former police officer in Washington state and owner of several 911 Driving Schools there. “Washington state law prohibits a picture or video of the face of the driver,” he says, “so the violations recorded in Washington state are all of the rear of the vehicle.”

However, he adds, “other states may differ and have a view of the driver of the vehicle.”

What Percentage of Traffic Lights Have Them?

There’s no precise figure for how many intersections use red light cameras since every locality is different. “Each municipality across America has different operating budgets and traffic safety programs for implementing red light cameras,” Reischer says.

But the bottom line is, they’re uncommon because they’re not cheap.

“They are very expensive to install,” Westover says. “Most jurisdictions have the cameras installed on their most dangerous intersections.” Reischer says a rural area with light traffic may not have any, while a busier urban area “could easily have 15 percent or more of their traffic lights with a red light camera.”

If One Catches You, How Will You Find Out?

Well, for one thing, you can be “caught” by a red light camera and not actually be punished for it.

“In Washington state, the violation has to be reviewed and approved by a commissioned officer before it is issued,” Westover says. If your car passed the sensor when the light was red but never actually entered the intersection, the officer would not deem it a “violation.”

But if you are found guilty of a violation, what will happen? “Typically, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) for each state will send a red light camera ticket via postal mail based on the registration information that is associated with the license plate,” Reischer says.

Some municipalities offer apps that text or email the guilty party instead. The fines themselves can vary. “In New York, they are $50 per occurrence, but every municipality can set the penalty accordingly,” Westover says.

Once you receive the ticket, you’ll have a deadline to pay it by. And if you don’t pay? “The unpaid violations can be sent to collections,” Westover says, “but this is dependent on state laws and jurisdictional involvement.”

Unless you weren’t the driver — in which case you’ll need to supply the name of the actual driver — you’re probably better off just paying the fine, because the eventual consequences likely won’t be worth it.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest