Wrong on red? Cameras successful, says report; worries remain
According to a recent County police report, the controversial red-light cameras at the intersection of Route 29 and Rio Road are a success. Crashes at the approaches where the cameras are located are down, and the County hauled in nearly $100,000 in ticket revenue last year that will be used for safe-driving initiatives, such as DUI goggles for driver impairment education and training manuals for teen driver education.
"If you do a month-to-month comparison, there is a significant reduction in citations issued during January 2011 compared to January 2012, which would lead us to believe that driving habits are changing," says County police Sergeant Darrell Byers. "So the goal of reducing red light crashes combined with a change in driving habits makes the program a success."
The report showed that crashes due to red light running (at the two approaches with cameras only) fell from 6 in 2010 to just one in 2011. The number of rear-end crashes, which research has shown typically increase when cameras are present, actually dropped at the two approaches to the Rio/29 intersection; from 17 in 2010 to 10 in 2011.
However, Byers admits that looking at "more comparative data from this coming year" is needed to find out if the cameras are really making the intersection safer. Some say safety isn't the goal.
"It's really all about making money," says Rutherford Institute president John Whitehead, a constitutional lawyer who has been a critic of the technology for years. While Whitehead admits the cameras probably deter some red light runners, he thinks better results could be achieved by having an officer stationed at the intersection.
"It would probably be cheaper and more effective," he says.
For instance, the report notes that the majority of summons issued at the Rio location were not for red-light running, per se, but for "rolling stops," which is when a driver fails to come to a complete stop before making a right-on-red turn. In addition, compared to 2010, overall crashes at the intersection since the cameras were installed actually increased in 2011.
As a 2007 Virginia Transportation Research Council study showed, determining the real effectiveness of the cameras can be elusive, as the findings were often turned on their heads by specific intersections that see a general increase in all types of crashes regardless of the cameras. In Fairfax County, red-light running decreased at four camera intersections studied, but increased at 5 other intersections. "Every intersection is different," said one of the study's research scientists.
The Albemarle report notes that 5,159 drivers received citations in the mail in 2011. The citations come complete with three photos of the car and a special code to access an online video of the infraction, along with instructions to pay the $50 fine or appear in court to contest the charge. Of course, unlike a ticket served by a live officer, the cameras are indiscriminate.
"I've only had one speeding ticket in my entire life," says Charlottesville native Gloria Yerkovich, whose red-light citation was only her second traffic infraction in over 30 years of driving. "I'm one of those drivers that other drivers get annoyed with because I am so cautious. "
Yerkovich says she was the third car back waiting at a red light on Rio Road headed east bound.
"I normally don't go on a yellow light, but I had no choice," she says.
Indeed, as a Hook video showed in 2007, that particular light at the intersection of 29 and Rio routinely turns yellow before the second car in line at the stoplight crosses the intersection. VDOT officials admit that the light there is unusually short, but they say it's necessary to keep traffic moving along busy U.S. 29.
Police and County officials have repeatedly insisted that the camera program is not a revenue generator, but the cameras are clearly generating a lot of cash. Keep in mind, there are cameras at only two approaches at the Rio/29 intersection, and they generated a gross total of $257,000 in fines. Theoretically, if there were cameras at the other two approaches, that single intersection could generate over a half-million in fine revenue.
Of course, the private company that installed and operates the cameras, Australia-based RedFlex, takes a hefty cut of that revenue, up to $9,800 a month. How does that work? Well, RedFlex is paid a monthly maximum of $4,900 at each of the two approaches from the ticket revenue generated, after that any additional ticket revenue goes to the county. If ticket revenue dips below that $4,900 monthly limit, Redflex only gets that lower amount. Critics have argued that this "cost-neutral" arrangement gives the company an incentive to generate more tickets so that their monthly maximum is reached, and that the county has an incentive to make sure ticket revenue goes beyond that monthly limit.
According to the report, the County hauled in $90,458 in ticket revenue in 2011. However, $49,892 in ticket revenue was not included in that total because it had not yet been collected, bringing the hoped-for 2011 total to $140,354.
However, the report also noted that the program was requiring "an intensive investment of staff time to administer." Police spent 444 hours reviewing tickets and making court preparations.
On average, the report says that 8 people a month show up in court to contest their tickets, and that an average of two cases each month are dismissed.
The dismissed cases, says the report, were for people who appeared in court and claimed they were not the driver of the vehicle. Indeed, one glaring legal weakness in the enforcement program: if a person says they weren't the driver, there's no way to prove them wrong. Since their likeness isn't captured on film, and the ticket isn't served by a live police officer, there's no way of telling who was driving the car.
Another legal weakness: it's not so easy to get around the right to be properly served; even according to a modified code that went into a effect when Virginia legislators allowed the use of red-light cameras, a driver ignoring the summons suffers no criminal penalty. And the law requires the County to personally serve the summons if it wants to ensure collection.
Indeed, as a 2005 VDOT study on red light cameras theorized, because Virginia code requires the delivery of an in-person summons to compel an individual to appear in court, unless red-light camera citations get hand-delivered, they could become "essentially unenforceable."
Remarkably, over 11,000 drivers actually triggered the red light cameras, but over 4,700 captured images were rejected (3,374 by the camera vendor, and 1,350 by the County PD) due to blurred images, incomplete data, or police review of the infraction. So, even if a driver triggers a camera (there are censors under the stop line, and a half-second delay), there's nearly a 50 percent chance that they won't get a ticket.
"I feel like I was wronged," says Yerkovich. "I'm one of the careful drivers."
Still, if red-light running is so dangerous, Yerkovich says she wonders why no points are added to one's insurance and it doesn't go on one's driving record.
Ironically, Virginia has some of the toughest reckless driving laws in the country. It's considered a misdemeanor criminal offense, goes on one's permanent criminal record, and earns the driver six demerit points. Unlike most other states, a driver's mental state isn't considered when determining what constitutes reckless driving. Instead, there are over 20 specific violations that can automatically be deemed reckless driving, including driving 20 miles over the posted speed limit, failure to yield right-of-way, and failure to give proper signals. Curiously, despite the reported dangers, red-light running is not one of them.
"Running a red light is about one of the most dangerous things you can do," says Whitehead, "but you only get a $50 dollar ticket and there's no points on your license. It makes no sense. It's really all about making money. "
Whitehead also fears its just the tip of the iceberg in the evolution of our new "surveillance society," in which such technology will be used more and more to monitor citizens.
"Unless people stand up and refuse to allow these kinds of infringements on their right to privacy," says Whitehead, "it won't be long until these cameras will be able to monitor who is driving, and will be used for other things than just nabbing red light runners."Read more on: red-light cameras