Red light now for real

The warning period is over. Red-light violators caught by Providence's new traffic cameras will get $75 citations.

01:00 AM EDT on Friday, April 28, 2006

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- Police Lt. Timothy Lee peered at his desktop computer, watching a video of a driver ignoring a red light and rolling through an intersection at 17 mph.

"Look, no attempt to stop," Lee pointed out to a visitor in the offices of the Police Department Administrative Division.

Lee and Patrolman Lewis Perrotti have been looking at a lot of photographs and video lately, marveling at how red lights seem to be more of a suggestion than a command to some drivers. Lee said he saw one driver barrel through an intersection at 42 mph although the traffic signal was red.

The 17-inch monitor on Lee's desk is a window on a world of bad driving and a big part of the city's new surveillance system to catch red-light runners. Cameras are being installed on 12-foot-high poles at 25 intersections.

The police have sent warnings to 227 red-light runners at one intersection in the first month of operation of the cameras. And 451 more apparent violations await screening before warnings are issued.

Journal photo / Glenn Osmundson

The camera's eye is focused on motorists at Raymond Street and Chalkstone Avenue. If a driver runs the red light, the camera takes a digital image and authorities mail a $75 citation to the registered owner of the vehicle.

"That's hundreds of near-accidents," said Mayor David N. Cicilline, who initiated the camera installations in order to raise revenue without resort to the property tax, and to enhance traffic safety.

When Affiliated Computer Services, the company that installs and monitors the cameras, was testing the system, Cicilline said, its employees were thunderstruck by the frequency of violations.

". . . They reported back that they had not been in a city that had this many violations," Cicilline said. "I think that anyone who has been through some of the intersections in this city would not be surprised."

Alan R. Sepe, acting city director of public property, said the misbehavior has been so bold that, one day, drivers kept going through red lights at a monitored intersection even as a TV news crew stood nearby doing a live broadcast about the cameras.

As of midnight Saturday, the 30-day warning period expired for drivers making either of two approaches to the first intersection where the cameras were made operational: Raymond Street northbound at Chalkstone Avenue and Oakland Avenue southbound at Chalkstone Avenue, on Smith Hill near the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

They now face $75 tickets if they don't obey the traffic lights. Citations issued under the new program are not considered moving violations, so the Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles will not record the citations and they will not be accessed by insurers and held against drivers.

Employees of Affiliated Computer Services sitting in Washington, D.C., and two officers ensconced on the second floor of the Public Safety Complex are calling the shots on the violations.

Digital video and still photographs are transmitted by telecommunications cable from the cameras to the Washington facility of Affiliated Computer Services, where ACS personnel look for violations. ACS, of Dallas, has similar systems in 46 cities and counties in the United States and Canada, including Washington.

When they see a violation, it is held aside in order to determine the name and address of the registered owner from the DMV and to verify that the vehicle shown in the picture is assigned the number on the registration plate. If they do not match, the police will not issue a ticket because the violation cannot be proved.

After being checked by the DMV, the proposed violations are sent via the Internet to police headquarters where Lee, former commander of the Traffic Bureau, and Perrotti, son of the former longtime Rhode Island deputy registrar of motor vehicles of the same name, call them up on computer monitors.

Lee and Perrotti decide if a violation has, in fact, occurred. They click a mouse on the word "Approve" or "Disapprove" and then ACS mails a ticket if a violation is to be alleged.

"I think it's going great," Lee declared.

He called up another video. A driver charges into an intersection at night, then hits the brakes as the flash of the camera tells him that he has been seen. The vehicle, two-thirds of the way into the intersection, then slowly backs up to the white stop line.

"I think we sent that person a warning," Lee recalled.

The police say they won't be tough guys about judging violations.

"The tie always goes to the person driving the car," Perrotti confided.

So far, they have agreed to 95 percent of the violations proposed by ACS.

Lee displays another video, this one showing a car tailing a state police cruiser as a line of cars moves through an intersection. The cruiser goes through while the signal is still yellow but the trailing vehicle violates the red light even though the system allows .2 seconds of grace time.

"If we can condition people to stop at red lights," Lee declared, "then ultimately the motoring public is safer."

Each ticket includes three photos of the alleged violation: One showing that the light is red and a vehicle is at the stop line, a second showing that the vehicle is in the intersection and the light remains red, and a third that shows a blowup of the registration plate on the back of the vehicle.

Each alleged violator will be assigned a PIN number so he or she can watch the violation video on a confidential ACS Web site.

"Anybody, before they pay their fine or go to court, can access the Web and see what they're up against," Perrotti said.

Opponents of the red-light cameras have raised a slew of objections, including the constitutional concern that the owner of the vehicle is held responsible for the ticket even if the owner was not driving.

The program seeks to address that concern by allowing an owner to identify on the back of the ticket who had custody of the vehicle at the time of the violation. Disagreements would be hashed out along with other appeals in Municipal Court, where the still pictures and the video will be projected on a wall.

The rollout of the camera systems has begun slowly, but mayoral aide John Simmons said he expects to have installations at 25 intersections, the maximum number of intersections allowed by the City Council, by late summer. Warnings only will be issued for the first 30 days for each installation.

Each approach to an intersection is considered separately and must meet certain standards for a camera to be installed. Simmons said police data on accidents and motor-vehicle offenses will determine whether a particular approach is a problem spot and warrants a camera.

Under a statute enacted to allow the red-light cameras, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation must approve the technology to be used and each camera placement.

For example, a wire was hanging across the street in front of the yellow signal on the traffic light at one of the approaches to the Chalkstone/Raymond/Oakland intersection. So before the DOT OK'd the installation, the wire had to be moved, Sepe said.

Two approaches at the Chalkstone intersection "went live," as the police put it, on March 23. One approach at another intersection went live on April 10, on Eaton Street eastbound at Huxley Avenue, in Elmhurst near Providence College. A third location, westbound on Steeple Street at Canal Street, at the foot of College Hill, is tentatively scheduled to become operational May 16.

When Cicilline conceived of the red-light cameras three years ago, his administration tried to create a Providence-only system in which the city would reap all the net revenue from the $75 tickets. But state officials contended that there would be practical and legal problems if Providence adopted a go-it-alone strategy.

To ensure that municipalities would install red-light cameras in a uniform manner, the statute was enacted. In the process the state decreed that it must have a share of the ticket proceeds; the city would get $46 from each ticket and the state, $29.

ACS is paid a maximum monthly fee of $4,550 per intersection approach. If the ticket revenue falls short of that figure, ACS receives only what is generated minus the state share, and the city receives nothing. The city begins to collect its share after the revenue exceeds $4,550.

Nevertheless, the city still stands to make significant money from the red-light cameras. The mayor is counting on $1.8 million to $1.9 million in revenue from the tickets in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

"The truth is that this is a very effective tool in reducing the number of people who run red lights," the mayor said. "And it obviously has a revenue-generating effect."

"It's sort of a two-for-one." / (401) 277-7334