October 6, 2008 By Jim McKay
Red light camera programs have garnered much negative publicity in recent years but some jurisdictions are sold on them; they're deploying red light camera programs -- and even speed cameras -- to improve public safety and put extra money in city coffers.
Studies of camera systems point to mixed results nationally. But some jurisdictions have concluded after trial runs that the programs work, claiming the camera systems reduce the number and severity of traffic accidents and produce revenue as a byproduct.
Seattle plans to have 30 cameras working citywide by the end of this year after a successful pilot program convinced officials of their value.
In Knoxville, Tenn., 15 intersections were outfitted with red light cameras in 2007 and officials there say the cameras reduced crashes by 18 percent. The city's traffic deaths decreased from 36 in 2006 to 22 in 2007, and the cameras generated an extra $955,013 for the city's general fund.
Portland, Ore., expanded its red light camera arsenal after four years of fewer accidents and increased revenue as a result of the program. The city's net revenue for the four-year period was $295,000, even as the number of red-light violations dropped by 1.75 per hour and the number of injuries by as much as 30 percent.
In Arizona, a nine-month pilot helped convince Gov. Janet Napolitano of the effectiveness of speed cameras, prompting her to announce in August a statewide system of 200 fixed and mobile speed and red light cameras.
A review of the pilot revealed that it had lowered the average speed on Arizona Highway Loop 101 by 9 mph, cut single vehicle collisions by 63 percent and reduced injuries by 48 percent.
"It's a force multiplier in that it allows our officers to focus on other major collision-causing violations like reckless drivers [and] aggressive drivers," said Tom Woodward, commander of the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Arizona placed six stationary cameras on Highway Loop 101 that resulted in fewer accidents and injuries, and reduced the overall speed of traffic. The state also used mobile enforcement, consisting of a vehicle with a mounted camera in a corridor area, that showed promising results.
On the first day of the deployment, the mobile camera was activated 350 times. That dropped to just 19 times by the fifth day. "We saw a very significant reduction in speeds in a high-collision corridor, which is also by nature difficult to effectively work traffic because it's congested and has a lot of private drives," Woodward said.
Arizona plans to deploy many of the new camera systems in "stack interchanges" where there are major junctions, and the state expects a reduction in collisions as a result. "If you slow down traffic, you do a couple of things," Woodward said. "One is you greatly reduce stopping distances, so when something happens in those major junctions where traffic suddenly slows down, people can stop safely. The other is you even out the disparity of speeds that is harmful where people are merging, getting off, changing lanes, that kind of thing."
In Seattle's yearlong pilot, results showed red light running decreased by 50 percent at the four intersections where cameras were present, according to Mike Quinn, strategic adviser to Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske. "We also found that the severity of accidents decreased as well," he said. That would suggest a drop in the number of broadside collisions.
Opponents of red light cameras suggest that a decrease in the broadside collisions (one of the most common and dangerous types of accidents) coincides with an increase in rear-end crashes as drivers slam on their brakes to avoid going through red lights. But Seattle's pilot found no increase in rear-end collisions, Quinn said. "That's worth noting because that's not what we've seen from other research nationally," he said.