Road Worrier: Raleigh cameras crank out those red-light tickets

Program issues more than 20,000 tickets a year

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comAugust 13, 2012 

  • Where the red-light cameras are Hoping to reduce injuries from right-angle crashes caused by drivers who run red lights, Raleigh has installed cameras at 15 busy intersections around the city. The first ones began operation in 2003. The newest one, on Blount Street at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, started issuing tickets in May. •  Blount at MLK •  Brentwood at New Hope Church eastbound •  Capital at Highwoods northbound •  Capital at New Hope Church •  Dawson at South •  Dawson at Morgan •  Hillsborough at Dixie •  McDowell at Morgan •  New Bern at I-440 eastbound •  New Bern at I-440 westbound •  New Bern eastbound at Tarboro •  Peace eastbound at West •  Six Forks southbound at Rowan •  Six Forks northbound at Dartmouth •  Wilmington at Chapanoke The $50 ticket is a civil infraction, like a parking ticket, with no effect on driving records or insurance rates.

— Sonny Cruz received his first and only traffic ticket – for running a red light – when he was a teen living in California. He had the right to challenge his accuser in court, and he made the most of it.

He argued that the cop had been too far away to know just where his car was when the light turned red. The judge dismissed the charge.

Cruz lives in Raleigh now. A few years ago he drove through an intersection on Six Forks Road, just after the signal changed from yellow to red. He figured his ticket-free record had ended.

It was one of 15 Raleigh corners equipped with cameras to catch red-light runners, who cause many of the worst crashes and the most devastating injuries in our cities.

Cruz saw the bright blink of the camera flash. He went home and waited to receive a $50 citation in the mail, along with photos proving his guilt.

Sure, there’s an appeal process for disputing these charges. But there’s no chance to challenge an officer. It’s hard to dispute a sequence of photos that shows your car rolling through an intersection after the light changed.

For whatever reason, he said, that ticket never came.

“I lucked out,” Cruz, 39, said Monday.

Still, he’s glad Raleigh uses cameras to catch people who violate one of our most fundamental traffic safety laws.

“I’m all for it. I am definitely in the minority on this. I can’t think of one person I know who’s for this. I’m also in the minority that likes speed limits,” Cruz said.

After Cary unplugs its cameras later this month, Raleigh will be one of just three North Carolina cities, along with Knightdale and Wilmington, that still use red-light cameras.

The Cary Town Council voted unanimously last week to get rid of red-light cameras. The program had been undermined by citizen complaints, a big-dollar lawsuit and a raft of undeserved tickets blamed on a technical error that went unnoticed for months.

Drivers argued for years that Cary’s fleeting yellow lights did not provide enough time for a safe stop. Brian Ceccarelli, the lead plaintiff in a suit that won class-action status this summer, showed that ticket counts at one corner fell sharply after Cary added one-half second to the yellow time.

Raleigh’s camera enforcement program has avoided this sort of controversy, but it still has critics.

When the city council failed to approve its renewal last year, it was because council member Eugene Weeks was unhappy about the cameras’ removal from a corner in his district, Rock Quarry Road at Proctor Road.

City traffic engineers showed Weeks that crash counts stayed low after the cameras were removed a few years ago. The program was saved after he switched his vote.

National studies say the cameras save lives by reducing the right-angle “T-bone” crashes that cause serious injuries. A 2010 study of Raleigh’s cameras by N.C. State University engineers mirrored these findings.

But the study also found that Raleigh’s cameras may have increased the rate of rear-enders – which rarely harm people or cause heavy damage. That’s what happened after Andrea Littleton’s son received a red-light camera ticket in Raleigh.

“A few months later, he was about to go through an intersection and saw the light turn yellow,” Littleton said by email. “Fearful that he would get another one of these red-light camera tickets, he slammed on brakes and the car behind him plowed into the rear of his car.”

Several Raleigh drivers told the Road Worrier they’d rather deal with flesh-and-blood officers.

“I have a philosophical problem with being charged based on a picture taken by a machine,” said Ed Fody, 44, who got tagged by a camera on Capital Boulevard in July.

Fody expressed cynicism about the reliance in Raleigh, and in other camera cities, on private technology companies that rake in most of the ticket proceeds.

Last year Raleigh’s camera tickets netted $812,546 in all, with 84 percent of the take ($683,467) going to ACS Xerox, the technology vendor. Raleigh recovered $78,744 in city costs and wrote a check for the rest, $50,335, to the Wake County schools.

John Sandor, a city traffic engineer, said the fee schedule for ACS Xerox is based simply on its services.

“There’s no incentive for how many tickets go out the door,” Sandor said. He said the city keeps close control over the intersections that are monitored and the tickets that are issued. The cameras will keep working as long as studies show they are reducing crashes, he said.

“Bottom line, it’s a safety program here,” Sandor said.

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