They're watching you. Red light cameras stand like sentinels facing the southbound lane of Route 29.
The cameras have generated over 7,000 tickets in just seven months.
Photo by Dave McNair
County police say recent headlines about the PhotoSafe red light camera program at the intersection of Route 29 and Rio Road have given it a bad rap.
"Crashes Increase at Red Light Camera Intersection" read a Charlottesville Newsplex headline last week, which was then touted on cvillenews. However, the news sources may have committed the reporting equivalent of a rolling stop.
According to County police Sgt. Darrell Byers, the Newsplex reported that there were 23 crashes between December 11, 2010, the date the cameras went live, and July 31, 2011, compared to 22 crashes the year before. However, Byers suspects the Newsplex included accidents at entrances to the intersection not monitored by red-light cameras, or simply misinterpreted the data.
According to Byers, between December 2009 and July 2010 (before the cameras were operational), there were 11 crashes in the southbound lane of Route 29 where two cameras are now located, and three crashes in the westbound lane of Rio where one camera is located. Between December 2010 and July 2011 (when the cameras were in operation), there were eight crashes in the southbound Route 29 lane, and one crash in the westbound Rio lane. That's five fewer crashes than a similar period a year earlier.
"Crashes actually decreased after the cameras were installed at those specific locations," says Byers.
While there were no deadly t-bone crashes during either study period, the were four rear-end crashes, which research shows can be caused by red-light cameras, on Route 29 southbound with the cameras operational, compared to three before. There was one rear-end crash in the west lane of Rio, the same number as the year before. Before the cameras were installed, four accidents were caused by red-light running on 29 southbound, compared to only two after the cameras were installed.
"There's definitely different driving behavior at the intersection," Byers says.
Still, even though the cameras were touted as a safety initiative, the accident numbers "haven't changed much," Byers concedes.
"We want to change dangerous driver behavior– not ticket a bunch of drivers for illegal behavior," another County spokesperson said at the time. However, according to Byers, between December 11, 2010 and July 31, 2011, the cameras generated an incredible 7,638 tickets.
As the Hook reported, at a meeting, County Supervisor Dennis Rooker labeled the initiative a safety measure and "revenue enhancer," and critics accused the County of launching a cash grab.
However, as Byers points out, 3,202 of the tickets were rejected, either by RedFlex, the Australian company that operates the cameras, which first receives the video and photo data, or by County police, who review the data before tickets are mailed. Reasons for a rejection include blurred images or other inconclusive evidence.
For example, a driver might cross the stop line and trigger the camera but never enter the intersection. Indeed, a reporter witnessed a driver headed south on Route 29 who triggered a camera flash by inching too far across the stop line,but then backed up in a futile attempt not to be nabbed. Byers says that one of the accidents recorded at the intersection during the study period was caused by someone backing up. What constitutes a so-called "rolling stop" when a driver makes a right-on-red turn at Rio is also a police judgement call.
So, during the 7-month study period, County police issued 4,436 tickets at a rate of 700 to 1,000 a month. At $50 a ticket, that represents $221,800 in revenue. However, under the no-risk deal with RedFlex, the company takes up to $9,480 of revenue generated each month, with the County keeping any amount beyond that. The deal is no-risk because the County has to pay RedFlex only whatever money the tickets generate. For example, if only $6,000 in monthly ticket revenue were generated, the County would be obligated to pay only that amount.
Minus the $9,480 that goes to RedFlex each month, the County hauled in $155,440 in seven months, roughly $22,205 per month at only two approaches to the intersection, while RedFlex hauled in $66,360.
While Byers says that there is no data immediately available on the number of tickets issued while police were monitoring the intersection, he suspects it is considerably lower than the amount the automatic cameras have generated.
"But the presence of a police cruiser at the intersection tends to deter people," he says.