August 4, 2014

Road Worrier: Red-light cameras reduce crashes, but Wake towns pull the plug

Too bad for Wake County drivers that Cary and Knightdale have unplugged their red-light cameras, which have been credited with cutting serious right-angle crash rates in half.

Those annoying red-light cameras are returning to Fayetteville, and that’s good news.

Drivers there can look forward to a big reduction in nasty T-bone crashes at intersections where cameras will be installed to catch red-light runners. These broadside, right-angle collisions are among the worst you can have on a city street. Crippling injuries will be averted in Fayetteville, and lives possibly will be saved.

The traffic safety news is not so good, though, for folks in two Wake County towns. Cary unplugged its red-light cameras two years ago, and Knightdale did likewise last fall.

Knightdale is keeping its dead cameras in place, in a low-budget bluff to fool a few drivers into obeying the red-light law. But even with this fakery, crash counts are rising again at the three Knightdale Boulevard intersections where the cameras nabbed violators until last October – a 32 percent increase in accidents, when the first six months of 2014 were compared with the same period of 2013, according to the town.

Cary officials say they haven’t checked to see how many more drivers have run red lights and caused crashes since 2012, when they they shut down their error-plagued camera program. Maybe they don’t want to know.

But studies across the nation – and in Raleigh and Wilmington, which will be North Carolina’s only two cities with red-light photo enforcement until Fayetteville joins the club next year – show that the cameras usually cut right-angle crash counts by 50 percent or more.

Fayetteville is one of a handful of North Carolina cities that suspended their red-light camera programs in 2006. The N.C. Supreme Court ruled that they were required, under the state constitution, to pay most of the money collected in fines to local school boards, rather than to the big technology contractors that operate the expensive camera systems. The affected cities didn’t want to divert tax dollars to finance the cameras.

Raleigh avoided this fate – it sends a fraction of its collections to Wake County schools – thanks to the wording of a separate statute that had authorized the city’s program.

There was a failed move in the legislature two years ago to outlaw the remaining red-light camera programs on the grounds that violators could not cross-examine their accusers in court.

But the cameras have not been controversial in Raleigh, or in Fayetteville.

“The program here was embraced by the community,” said Russell Thompson, Fayetteville’s engineering and infrastructure director. “We have a large military community, and they have encountered these cameras in Europe, in Australia, in Japan – wherever they have been stationed.”

The legislature authorized a new camera program in Fayetteville last month after city, county and school leaders agreed to a novel financing scheme to get around the constitutional requirements. The Cumberland County schools will receive the proceeds from fines and then give most of this money to the city and the camera contractor.

Caught on camera

The red-light camera usually nabs a violator with a neat package of three images:

First, the light turns red before the car enters the intersection;

Second, the car drives through the intersection, under the red light;

Third, there’s a closeup of the license plate, to identify the owner of the car.

The car owner receives the damning evidence by mail, along with a request to pay a civil penalty.

Relax. This isn’t a traffic violation or a criminal charge. It doesn’t show up on your criminal record. It doesn’t affect your automobile insurance. And it’s not a lot of money.

In Raleigh, it’s a $50 fine. That’s what you’d pay if you illegally park your old-fashioned petroleum-burning car in a space reserved for electric-car plug-in chargers. Fayetteville violators will be fined $75.

It’s a small price to pay for a life-saving reminder. Each morning on the way to work in Raleigh, the Road Worrier remembers a $50 penalty he paid a few years ago for running the light on North Dawson Street at West Morgan Street.

Other drivers have learned their lessons, too. The most recent study in Raleigh, produced for the city in 2012 by the engineering firm AECOM, credits the red-light cameras at 15 intersections with a 52 percent reduction in right-angle collisions. These crashes happen when one car rams the side of another car, and only one of them has the green light.

“Serious injury and death may result from such impacts,” AECOM wrote. At some intersections, cameras cut these crashes by as much as 72 percent.

But AECOM analysts also found, as has been the case in other studies, that Raleigh’s red-light cameras sparked a 32 percent increase in less serious rear-end collisions. These crashes happen when a driver hits the brakes to avoid that $50 ticket, and the next driver hits the car’s rear bumper – “impacts (that) usually cause property damage only,” AECOM said.

“Based on this data, they are still effective,” said John Sandor, a transportation engineer who oversees Raleigh’s red-light cameras and other safety programs.

Brian Ceccarelli, an Apex computer consultant, spent a small fortune suing Cary over his argument that he ran a red light because it didn’t stay yellow long enough. Even though he lost the case, his lawsuit against Cary had a lingering effect – in Knightdale.

Ceccarelli delivered an anti-camera sermon to the Knightdale Town Council in September. In October, citing worry about exposure to similar lawsuits, the council killed Knightdale’s cameras.

Bad call.

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