Action! County's red light camera system goes live
As recently reported, while weather and utility work delayed the installation of red-light cameras at the intersection of Rio Road and 29 North, Albemarle County's high-tech attempt to curb red-light running will finally commence on Friday, November 12. There will be a 30-day grace period, during which violations will only be observed, but after that County police will start mailing out $50 tickets based on photographic and video evidence the cameras capture.
However, there's one important detail (mentioned previously on Coy Barefoot's radio program) that hasn't been widely reported: the cameras won't be monitoring the entire intersection. Say what?
According to a joint County/VDOT engineering safety analysis on the intersection, three cameras will monitor only two approaches: the through lanes of 29 Southbound and the two left-hand turn lanes, and the through lanes of Rio Road Eastbound and the left and right turned turn lanes.
"We are obviously hoping for a 'halo effect' that will impact driver behavior at all approaches to the intersection," says county spokesperson Lee Catlin.
According to County police Lt. Ernie Allen, the camera systems can only be installed at approaches that are studied and approved by VDOT, which based its decision on traffic volume, crash data, and violation rates at the intersection.
"We had no say in their location," says Officer Allen, who admits that he would have liked to have seen all the approaches monitored."But we're pleased to have another tool to prevent red-light running."
According to the analysis, there were no reported angle crashes caused by red-light running on Rio Road Eastbound between 2006 and 2009, while there were four reported angle crashes on Rio Road Westbound. In addition, traffic volume on Rio Road Westbound is nearly double that of the traffic volume on Rio Road Eastbound. So why not put cameras at what appears to be the more dangerous approach?
"If every angle crash is evidence of the danger of red-light running," says County transportation engineer Jack Kelsey, "then every red-light violation is a potential crash and also evidence of the danger."
As Kelsey points out, during a 12-hour video surveillance of the intersection last year, red-light running violations were observed most often at Rio Road Eastbound and 29 Southbound. And while there were no angle crashes at Rio Eastbound, there were 11 at 29 Southbound.
"As the volumes and rates of violations get larger and larger," says Kelsey, "it’s just a matter of time before the crash tally catches up. So based on the data we have selected the two most hazardous approaches."
According to the analysis, there were a total of 177 crashes at the intersection during the study period; however, only 22 of those were caused by red light running. There were 36 injuries associated with these crashes, none of them fatal. The most common kind of accident? Rear end crashes. At 121, they represent 68 percent of the total crashes over the three-year period.
Counterproductively, it would seem, installing the cameras could drive up the number of crashes at the intersection. As VDOT's own studies have observed, installing red light camera systems tend to increase the number of rear end crashes, as motorists brake erratically quickly to avoid getting a ticket. Indeed, as the County analysis states, the camera systems "may not help to reduce the majority of the crashes at this particular intersection."
Confused yet? Again, as Kelsey explains, it's all about trying to prevent the more deadly angle crashes. While rear end crashes might increase, and the recorded number of angle crashes hasn't been alarming, the number of violations observed was cause for concern.
"Each violation represents a potential hazard to all users of this intersection, including cyclists and pedestrians," says Kelsey, who emphasises that the goal of using the cameras is to reduce the number of violations.
Of course, each violation also represents $50 paid to the camera company, Australia-based Redflex, and to the County's general fund, which helps to support the police department and other services. As previously reported, the County paid nothing up front for the camera systems. Under the deal, any ticket revenue up to $10,000 a month will go to Redflex, while any revenue generated beyond that goes to the County.
While County officials tout the deal as a savings to taxpayers, critics argue that it side-steps the ban on camera companies getting compensated based on the number of citations handed out, as the risk-free arrangement gives the County a financial incentive to make sure Reflex gets its $10,000 every month.
While County officials are characterizing this as a traffic safety measure, the deal would have any red-blooded American businessperson licking their chops. During that 12-hour period last year (from 6am to 6pm), 152 red-light running violations were observed at the chosen approaches. At $50 a violation, that's over $200,000 a month, or $2.7 million a year. Even if half those violations are deterred by the presence of the cameras, that's still over $100,000 a month.
Surprisingly, Officer Allen predicts that the number of violations, based on observations of the 23 camera systems in Virginia Beach, could actually spike during the first several months of the program, before leveling out as motorists get used to the cameras.
Of course, actually getting those $50 checks could be another story.
In Arizona, the state's network of Redflex-operated speed cameras came down recently because those ticketed simply began tossing them out. According to Arizona code, motorists were under no obligation to pay the tickets unless they were personally served. It's a situation that has cost Redflex $6.7 million in lost revenue this year, according to an April 2010 letter to shareholders, and has had the company petitioning the Arizona Supreme Court over the law.
Virginia code was amended to accompany the new red light camera legislation, but it's not that easy to get around the right to be properly served; even according to the modified code, a driver ignoring the citation suffers no criminal penalty. What's more, the code appears to require the County to personally serve the citation if it wants to ensure collection.
As was mentioned in a 2005 VDOT study on the use of red light cameras, 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."
"Early next year we should have a pretty good idea of how the cameras are working," says Officer Allen.