Questions arise as state considers red-light cameras
Conflicting evidence over use of red-light enforcement cameras
Published 3:47 pm, Sunday, February 26, 2012
STAMFORD -- In 2010, members of the Loma Linda, Calif., city council shut down its red-light camera enforcement program after five years of growing public discontent.
In a city of 23,000, the program managed to issue 35,000 tickets at $500 each. So, when the contract with Redflex Systems of Phoenix came up for renewal, Mayor Rhodes Rigsby said the city decided to end the program rather than face a possible $534,000 penalty to terminate the contract early.
"If I had one piece of advice to officials about this it is, don't do it," Rigsby said. "If you do do it, don't sign a long-term contract."
As Connecticut lawmakers consider enabling municipalities to use red-light enforcement cameras, some like Rigsby say it may not be the panacea that contractors promise and there is a conflicting body of evidence on whether they actually make intersections safer.
In fact, in Loma Linda's case, city officials found they were able to reduce red-light violations by 90 percent and improve safety simply by extending the length of yellow lights.
"That's a free engineering solution you can use that dramatically reduces the number of accidents," Rigsby said.
Contractors that provide the red-light enforcement equipment -- which usually receive a flat-fee or a portion of the revenues generated from violations -- have hired lobbyists in Hartford and have gained support from municipal leaders, law enforcement officials and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Supporters like state Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, say the proposed legislation is not intended to be a revenue generator, but to improve public safety.
Guerrera said the proposed fine for red-light violations would be up to $75, which would be more like a parking ticket and not subject to administrative sanctions from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
"There are places in the state such as Bridgeport and New Haven where there is a lot more foot traffic and hustle-bustle than a place like, say, Coventry," Guerrera said.
Malloy has said if the General Assembly approves the legislation, he will be inclined to sign it.
Charles Territo, a spokesman for American Traffic Solutions, said his company would install the cameras, which cost $75,000 to $100,000 apiece, for free in Connecticut towns in return for a monthly fee of $4,750.
"We only get $4,750 and the city gets the rest," Territo said. "In the event the camera doesn't produce enough revenue, we only get the money that it does generate."
The bill is backed by officials from New Haven, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.
Research on the effectiveness of red-light cameras in reducing accidents provides conflicting viewpoints.
Supporters cite a 2011 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that fatal accidents were reduced 24 percent from 2004 to 2008 in 14 U.S. cities with red-light camera programs.
"The cameras do help make intersections safer," said Russ Rader, vice president of the institute.
Other studies suggest that better solutions are to lengthen yellow-light signals, and that cameras trigger more rear-end crashes at intersections.
A 2008 analysis by three professors from the University of South Florida's College of Public Health concluded that most studies conducted by groups not linked to the insurance industry showed cameras increase the incidence of crashes, especially rear-end crashes.
A study by the Virginia Transportation Research Council in 2005 found that the total number of intersection crashes in five jurisdictions increased 29 percent after the installation of the cameras, including a 42 percent jump in rear-end crashes.
Etienne Pracht, who co-authored the study, said the analysis also found that studies conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and other groups linked to the insurance industry used flawed methodologies to reach positive conclusions about the cameras' effects.
Pracht said violations generated by cameras and additional crashes caused by cameras benefit insurance companies by allowing them to justify higher premiums on drivers.
"When you look at the studies that meet scientific standards you find that this is actually something that might increase accidents," Pracht said.
In Houston, where voters decided to shut down the cameras last year, Mayor Pro-Tem Ed Gonzalez, a former police officer, said the cameras improved public safety and generated nearly $7 million a year to support traffic enforcement and trauma centers.
The city has agreed to pay $4.8 million to settle a lawsuit with American Traffic Solutions for breaking their contract which extended to 2014 in compensation for lost ticket revenue.
"I've seen the impact of people running red lights on a routine basis and the kinds of accidents that can happen," Gonzalez said. "From a policy standpoint, I understand the constraints of tight budgets and see the use of this technology as a force multiplier helping to enforce laws without assigning an officer to monitor an intersection."
In Philadelphia, Chris Vogler, manager of the red-light enforcement program, said cameras improved driver compliance. Since installing cameras at two intersections in 2002, the network of cameras now watches 21 of the busier intersections with 96 cameras, according to Vogler.
The program was instituted at the first two intersections after a survey by State Farm Insurance placed them as the second- and third-most accident-prone intersections in the nation, Vogler said.
Compared to the first month of operation in 2002, average violations at one intersection fell from 4,100 to about 300, and from 1,800 to 200 at the other, Vogler said.
"Our goal was and has been to put the cameras up where there are problems and see a decrease in violations and I think that's happened," Vogler said. Phineas Baxandall, a senior policy analyst for U.S. Public Interest Research Group said a study he did in 2011 raised concerns about cities maintaining control when hiring private firms to conduct red-light enforcement.
Cities and towns should tailor agreements to include early termination clauses, and designate what type of offenses they wish to issue fines for, the study recommended.
In some contracts, vendors mandate that cities include maneuvers such as making a right on red without coming to complete stop as an offense, dramatically boosting ticket numbers.
"There is a serious and systematic problem with the kinds of contracts that are being signed that shows that the interests of private business and the safety of the public don't always meet," Baxandall said.
In Jersey City, N.J., where officials have installed the cameras at five of 11 planned intersections under a pilot program of the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the cameras are expected to bring in $7 million a year after expenses, Jennifer Morrill, a spokeswoman said.
Law enforcement and the city council have yet to evaluate whether the incidence of collisions is higher or lower at the five intersections.
Territo defended the lobbying efforts of the red-light camera equipment companies as necessary to counteract misinformation from opponents, including that cameras photograph faces, which is not true, Territo said.
"The main reason why so many communities across the country are choosing cameras is because they work," Territo said. "The real value of a red-light safety camera is not in the revenue they generate but rather in the crashes, injuries and fatalities they help prevent."