Raleigh to halt red light cameras

Council doesn't extend contract

Staff WriterSeptember 22, 2011 

— The city's 8-year-old red-light camera program could come to an end next week after a divided City Council voted not to extend the contract with the company that operates the cameras.

City traffic engineers say the cameras have helped reduce serious T-bone crashes by discouraging people from running red lights. But critics say the cameras are inherently unfair because vehicle owners automatically receive tickets in the mail without the opportunity to challenge them on the spot.

The cameras photograph vehicles that enter an intersection after the light has turned red, and the pictures and notice of a $50 fine are sent to the vehicle's owner, based on the license plate. It's a civil infraction, like a parking ticket, with no effect on driving records or insurance rates.

The city began installing the cameras at historically dangerous intersections in summer 2003, and now has them at 15 intersections citywide.

The council voted 4-3 Tuesday to extend the cameras contract with ACS Xerox - one vote short of the five needed for approval. Mayor Charles Meeker did not vote because, he said, one of his law office colleagues has done work related to the program.

The contract expires Sept. 30, and the cameras will stop working at midnight that day unless the council reconsiders, said Mike Kennon, thecity's transportation operations manager.

Councilman Bonner Gaylord was among the three dissenters, arguing that the camera system violates the principle of "innocent until proven guilty." Gaylord also noted that vehicle owners can be fined even if they weren't the ones behind the wheel.

Gaylord was joined by Eugene Weeks and John Odom. Council members Mary-Ann Baldwin, Thomas Crowder, Nancy McFarlane and Russ Stephenson voted to extend the contract.

The city has tried to make it easy to contest the citations if people feel they have received them in error, Kennon said. In addition to the photos, the system also creates a video, made available to drivers online, that would show mitigating circumstances, such as being part of a funeral procession or being forced to move to make room for an ambulance or fire truck.

Not a money-maker

In the early years of the program, drivers contested up to 20 percent of camera citations; only about 2 percent of those appeals were successful, Kennon said. The addition of the video has drastically cut those numbers, so that in 2011 only 2 percent of citations have been appealed, and of those only 16 percent were overturned, he said.

"If you get a citation in the mail, it's more than likely you ran the light and deserved it," Kennon said.

The program was not meant to be a money-maker for the city. The citation fees not needed to cover the cost of the program are turned over to the Wake County public schools - more than $521,000 since the cameras were put up.

Raleigh is one of four communities that use red-light cameras in North Carolina, along with Cary, Knightdale and Wilmington. Earlier this year, a bill that would have outlawed them in those places passed the state Senate but stalled in the House.

During debate over the bill, Sen. Josh Stein of Raleigh said the cameras had produced significant results. At Dawson and Morgan streets downtown, for example, police recorded 42 crashes in the four years before the cameras were installed, Stein said, and only one in the four years since.

Kennon says city audits show that crashes declined an average 80 percent at Raleigh intersections where the cameras were installed.

Staff writer Matt Garfield contributed to this report.

rstradling@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4739

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