Traffic light cameras: Everything you need to know

Don’t be an amber gambler.

By helping to enforce the rules of the road, traffic light cameras play a vital role in keeping us safe. If you’re caught driving through a red light, they’ll snap a picture. And you could get a hefty fine.

But what if you run a red light accidentally? How do you know if you’ve been caught, and is there a right to appeal?

Here, we cover everything you need to know about traffic light cameras. From how they work to what they look like, whether all traffic lights have cameras, and what happens if you go over the line when the lights are red. 

Let’s dive in.

How do traffic light cameras work?

Traffic light cameras work similarly to average speed limit cameras. They use two sets of sensors or ground loops in the road (sometimes called induction loops) to identify when a vehicle goes through a red traffic light.

The system doesn’t activate if your car remains stationary. It’s only when you drive over both sensors in quick succession that a signal is sent to the camera system.

The loops aren’t active on green and amber lights either, so not every passing car is snapped. But once the lights turn red, the system switches on. Then, any car driving over the white stop line gets photographed. 

Some cameras give a grace period after the red light appears (usually no more than 0.2 seconds). Others snap a photo immediately.

Traffic light cameras help keep our roads safe. They’re usually found in high-risk areas, such as busy intersections or crossings, where there’s a higher risk of collisions.

You’ll also see smaller safety cameras on top of traffic lights. These cameras observe road users, helping to predict and control traffic jams. But they don’t monitor driving violations.

Do all traffic lights have cameras?

No, not all traffic lights have cameras.

You won’t see cameras at every set of traffic lights. They’re usually found at busier or high-risk intersections. 

National statistics aren’t available for the specific number of cameras in the UK. But most councils — such as Warwickshire County Council — publish the type and location of all their fixed cameras. They also publish camera statistics and collision data.

Other councils, such as Devon County Council, don’t differentiate between camera types, but do offer a full list of camera locations. If these locations have traffic lights (for instance at roundabouts or junctions), chances are they’re red light cameras.

If you’re unsure whether cameras operate at traffic lights near you, check the website of your local authority. 

What do red light cameras look like?

Traffic light cameras don’t all look the same.

Most cameras sit on top of a high pole nearby or attached to traffic lights. They’re normally enclosed in a large, weather-resistant box. The casing is usually white, yellow or silver. 

If you’re driving past, you’ll see a large rectangular box with a dark circle on the front. Look closer, and you might see a distinctive camera lens inside the circle.

Some red light cameras are harder to spot because they blend in with their surroundings.

They might look like smaller CCTV cameras, either attached to traffic light posts or nearby poles. These cameras are usually protected by weather-resistant black casing, so they just look like a small black tube.

How do you know if a traffic light has a camera?

Quite simply, you won’t always know if a traffic light has a camera.

Just because you haven’t spotted a camera, it doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Again, your best bet is to search for the locations of fixed cameras with your local council. But this isn’t a fail-safe method. 

There could be a temporary traffic enforcement camera not on the list. Alternatively, your local council may have recently installed a new device. So you never know for sure.

It’s sensible to treat every set of traffic lights like there’s a camera, and always follow the rules of the road.

How do you know if you got caught by a red light camera in the UK?

Just like you won’t always know whether traffic lights have a camera, you might not immediately know whether you’ve been caught. You might see a red light camera flash. But sometimes you won’t. There are different types of red light cameras in the UK and some use an invisible infrared flash.

The only reliable way of knowing whether you’ve been caught is a letter.

If you’re photographed in a traffic infringement at a red light, you’ll get a notice of intended prosecution (NIP). You’ll get this letter within 14 days of the alleged offence.

The NIP outlines the driving offence and asks the registered owner of the vehicle to identify the driver. The driver then has to fill out the enclosed form and return it via post. 

You usually have 28 days to complete and return these details.

What happens if you accidentally go through a red light in the UK?

If you’ve accidentally gone through a red light, there’s a chance nothing will happen.

But if you’re photographed (either by a static camera or a police officer), you’ll get an NIP through the post. This letter asks for an admission of guilt. If you went through a red light, you’ll probably get a fine and penalty points on your licence. The penalty for driving through a red light is £100 and three points on your licence.

Aside from fines and points on your licence, the most important consequence of running red lights is public safety. If you go through a red light, there’s a high chance of injury to you and other road users. 

Penalty points can also increase the amount you pay for your car, van or motorbike insurance. So the best advice is to play it safe and not be an amber gambler!

Do you always get three points for running a red light?

Three points on your licence and a fine of £100 is the standard penalty for running a red light.

However, some local authorities offer driving safety courses instead. This means you could escape both the fine and the points.

For instance, Warrington Borough Council provides an online Traffic Light Awareness course. It teaches drivers about the risks of failing to obey traffic lights and the consequences of collisions. Drivers taking the course won’t have a fine or penalty points to contend with. 

To find out whether driving safety courses are available in your area, check with your local council.

A word of caution, though. If you don’t respond to an NIP (or don’t provide details of the correct offending driver), you could face more penalty points. Failure to respond can result in six penalty points, a maximum fine of £1,000, and even prosecution.

Can I appeal a fine for running a red light?

Yes, you can appeal a red light camera ticket.

But running a red light is what’s known as a “strict liability” offence. This means you’re responsible for the action, regardless of your intention or mental state. Even running a red light by accident won’t get you off the hook. Even if you drove over the white lines with good intentions (such as letting an ambulance pass), you’ll still have to pay the fine.

If photographic evidence exists (and it probably does if you’ve received an NIP), a successful appeal is unlikely. 

The only relevant circumstances are:

  • If you can actively prove you didn’t drive through the red light. For instance, you and your car were elsewhere at the time.
  • Proving the traffic lights, camera, or related signage were defective. For instance, you might have dashcam footage showing the camera went off incorrectly (and the lights weren’t red).

If you don’t have proof to the contrary, it’s worth paying the fine. 

If your appeal is unsuccessful, you’ll have 28 days to pay the original £100 fine. If you don’t pay within 28 days, you’ll owe another 50% (totalling £150).

Quickfire summary

Red light cameras work through sensors in the road triggering a photo when a vehicle drives through a red light. 

Not all traffic lights have cameras. But even if they do, you won’t always spot them. 

If you’re caught running a red, you’ll receive an NIP through the post. While you’ll probably have a £100 fine and three points on your licence, some councils offer road safety courses instead. 

If a ticket was issued in error, you have the right to appeal. But you’ll need to prove you didn’t commit the offence.

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