Red-light cameras in doubt

Bill would affect last four N.C. cities that use them

Staff WriterApril 8, 2011 

— Red-light cameras, credited with cutting crashes at dangerous intersections in Raleigh and Cary, would be abolished under legislation that is speeding through the General Assembly.

The Senate gave preliminary approval Thursday, by a 34-16 vote, to a bill that would outlaw the cameras in the four North Carolina cities that still use them - Wilmington, Knightdale, Cary and Raleigh.

Sen. Don East, a Republican from Pilot Mountain and retired Winston-Salem traffic cop, says the cameras aren't fair because drivers can't really challenge the $50 tickets that come in the mail.

"You ought to be able to say, 'Officer, are you right sure that light was red?'" East, the bill's sponsor, said during Senate debate Thursday. If the Senate gives final approval Monday night, the legislation will move to the House, where its prospects were not clear Thursday.

The cameras catch cars that enter an intersection after the light has turned red. Car owners receive photographic evidence along with their tickets. Violation is a civil infraction, with no effect on driving records or insurance rates.

What the stats show

Critics say the cameras cause rear-end collisions when drivers slam on the brakes to avoid a ticket. East cited an N.C. A&T State University study that blamed cameras for increasing crashes.

But Raleigh and Cary officials say the cameras have made drivers more careful to avoid running red lights.

"At every intersection where we've installed the cameras, we've seen significant decreases in T-bone crashes, the very serious type of crashes you can have" when a driver runs a red light, said Mike Kennon, Raleigh's traffic engineer.

Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, said during Senate debate that Raleigh police recorded 48 crashes during the four years before cameras were installed at Dawson and South streets, and just 16 in the four years afterward. At Dawson and Morgan streets, the counts during the same period fell from 42 crashes before cameras to one crash afterward.

"This is something that I think is appropriate for our local jurisdictions to decide," Stein said.

Cary town spokeswoman Susan Moran also cited sharp drops in crashes.

"We believe it has made intersections safer and helped us put precious police resources to other uses," Moran said. "Our program has always been about safety."

Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican, supported East's bill and said getting rid of the cameras would make the streets safer.

"My main concern, frankly, is just the safety of travelers," Hunt said in an interview, citing the N.C. A&T study.

Sen. Richard Stevens, a Cary Republican, also favored the ban. He said one intersection on Walnut Street in Cary has become more perilous since the cameras were installed.

"The light changes more quickly now than it did before," Stevens said in an interview. "That causes people to try to speed up to get through it."

A Wake Superior Court judge is considering a lawsuit filed by several Cary drivers who say the yellow caution lights don't last long enough for drivers to stop safely before the light turns red at camera-equipped intersections.

Several North Carolina cities were forced to unplug their red-light cameras in the 1990s after the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that most of the proceeds from tickets must be turned over to local schools, instead of being used to pay technology vendors that operate the systems.

Money for schools

Raleigh, Cary, Knightdale and Wilmington were excluded from that case. Their cameras had been authorized under separate legislation with different language. Raleigh's red-light cameras generated about $200,000 for Wake County schools last year, Kennon said. Moran said Cary's cameras have sent the schools more than $600,000 since 2004.

Russell Allen, Raleigh city manager, said he hopes the legislature will not abolish the cameras.

"Personally I would hate to see us lose that program," Allen said. "I don't think that would be good for our public."

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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