Red in black: Rio-Seminole cams generate cash, controversy
While Albemarle County officials have insisted that the new red light cameras are safety tools, not money generators, the first 26 days of active enforcement seem to show a tidy profit.
Between December 12 and January 7, according to figures just released, 412 tickets were mailed to offenders. At $50 a ticket, that represents potential revenue of $20,600.
In a release, County Police Captain John Parrent said he was pleased by "what appears to be a positive impact" on the intersection of Rio Road and Seminole Trail; and that, he said, "translated into improved traffic safety."
However, the County offered no data on the number of intersection accidents, if any, since the cameras went live, how any new accident rate might compare to a pre-camera time period, or any data on how many tickets were for "rolling stops," a relatively benign infraction.
Under the County's agreement with Australia-based camera vendor Redflex, the company gets to keep the first $10,000 of monthly ticket revenue while the County keeps any overage for its general fund, an arrangement that's received fire from the Rutherford Institute. In a report, the civil rights organization slams such systems as “revenue-raising devices” that create an improper financial incentive.
Specifically, the Institute contends that the arrangement violates a Virginia law prohibiting municipalities from making corporate deals in which compensation rises with the penalties. During a County budget meeting in April 2009, County Supervisor Dennis Rooker appeared to confirm such suspicions when he lauded the system not only for safety but also as a "revenue enhancer."
Indeed, while Redflex's profit is limited to $10,000 a month, the County can make as much as they want after they meet the 200 monthly ticket threshold needed to meet that $10,000 limit, an incentive that appears to benefit Redflex as well. However, Annie Kim, a senior assistant attorney with the County, told the Daily Progress recently that the contract with RedFlex “fully complies with state code.”
That's a claim Rutherford Institute president John Whitehead says he's eager to challenge. "If we get a good client," he says.
County data indicate that the system itself also has some problems. It seems that 998 drivers triggered a camera, which is activated when a vehicle enters the intersection at least a half-second after a light has turned red, but more than half of the 998 potential tickets were tossed. Issues include glare, blur, obstructions, and incomplete information at the Division of Motor Vehicles.
Therefore, it appears that drivers cruising through a red light at the intersection of Rio and 29, despite the presence of the cameras, have a greater than 50 percent chance of not getting ticketed. County spokesperson Lee Catlin cites the 586 toss-outs as evidence that "clear and compelling" standards of proof outweigh any alleged desire to generate revenue.
Still, the Rutherford Institute has decried the "Big Brother" aspects and questioned the effectiveness of the cameras, pointing to studies suggesting they don't prevent red light-running and that they can actually increase the frequency of accidents.
In response, the County released a December 16 letter from a top research executive for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The executive, Joseph Nolan, accuses Whitehead of relying on "flawed research."
Accident rates at intersections with cameras is a touchy subject for the pro-camera crowd, as most of the data seem to indicate that overall accidents tend to increase, a conclusion that Nolan attempted to discredit.
"The researchers failed to incorporate comparison sites," wrote Nolan, referring to other intersections where red light cameras are located. "The result is that the expected number of crashes at intersections where cameras were installed could not be properly estimated, so the effects of the enforcement on crashes could not be determined."
Whitehead shot back with his own letter, calling the County's decision not to respond directly to his Institute's report a "sad reflection on the Board of Supervisors." He described Nolan's letter as "little more than a rehashing of various justifications for the program that have been trotted out in the past."
"It's not true that we failed to use comparison sites," says John Miller. A research scientist with the Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation and Research, part of VDOT, Miller co-wrote the 2007 study on the effectiveness of red light cameras in Virginia. Miller even directed a reporter to the study's Appendix A, which shows how comparison sites were used.
"That report also details how we obtained data and conducted the analysis," says Miller. "Subsequent experimentation with site selection did not show an increase in camera effectiveness."
According the Center for Transportation, the effectiveness of the red-light camera systems lies somewhere between the assertions of organizations like the Insurance-company backed Insurance Institute, which has enthusiastically endorsed these systems for decades, and Libertarian-leaning groups like the Rutherford Institute, which have demonized them for just as long.
As Miller points out, other studies on the effectiveness of red-light camera systems on preventing crashes all tend to agree that dangerous side-angle and t-bone crashes generally decrease, that less-deadly rear-end crashes generally increase, and that overall crashes increase (because rear-end crashes happen more frequently). In addition, the findings are often turned on their head by specific intersections that see a general increase in all types of crashes regardless of the cameras.
Basically, the study concluded that red-light cameras are "associated with some benefits," but shouldn't be "implemented on a widespread basis" without first studying the particular intersection.
"Every intersection is different," says Miller.
Indeed, The Tampa Tribune reports that at $125 a ticket, over $1 million in revenue has been generated in a year with cameras at four intersections in Hillsborough County, Florida. Four of the intersections saw fewer injurious crashes compared to the previous year, but two of the intersections saw more of them.
"It's not increasing any problems, but right now it's too early to say this is a cure for anything," said sheriff's corporal Troy Morgan.