Red light-runners could be risking a photo finish


Picture it - A motorist barrels through a red light in Jackson, and police are there in real time.

Welcome to the world of high-tech traffic safety. In the next couple of weeks, motorists will start to notice new signs going up at four major Jackson intersections letting drivers know that, whether they like it or not, digital cameras will start recording every move they make. The cameras also will take still pictures of cars that don't stop when the light's red, and police will issue those drivers a $50 ticket. Some people may see it as some kind of Candid Camera meets Crimestoppers.


"It might force people to watch their speed," said Cameron Bullis, in between filling his tank at the BP station off Old Hickory Boulevard on his way home after a trip to North Carolina. Bullis, 17, is familiar with traffic cameras; they have them in his home state of Oklahoma.
Although Bullis admitted he has run a red light before, he said knowing the cameras are there makes you think twice about it, especially since some cities have cameras that are more conspicuous than others.

In Beverly Hills for example, "they have cameras installed in phony palm trees," said Lt. Ron Adams, JPD traffic safety coordinator.

The goal of the traffic camera program is to reduce the number of car wrecks, related injuries and fatalities at traffic stops, said Jackson Police Chief Rick Staples. Gathering streaming video and still photos for accident investigations is another benefit.

Southern Electric is in charge of installing the traffic cameras, which will be mounted at the following intersections that were identified as four of the most dangerous in Jackson: the U.S. 45 Bypass and Oil Well Road.; the U.S. 45 Bypass and Channing Way; Highland Avenue and Old Hickory Boulevard; and Highland Avenue and Carriage House Drive.

Police manpower will be targeted toward other dangerous intersections in Jackson not covered by the cameras. If certain intersections are showing a decline in violations, City Engineer Mike Harris said that the traffic camera units, which are mobile, may be moved to other locations in the city.

Once Jackson's program gets started, Adams will be reviewing the video clips to determine whether the vehicles caught on tape should receive a citation for any of three specific violations: running a red light going through the intersection, making a left turn on red or making a right turn on red without stopping first.

"It's all based on the stop bar," Harris said. The wide white line at the intersection designates where vehicles should stop. "The bottom line is if you pass the stop bar after it's red, then that's when a ticket is issued," Harris said.

"Everyone needs to get ready," he added. Harris expects a lot of tickets to be issued during the learning curve. "You get a lot of tickets (issued) at first because people are getting used to it or people think the cameras really don't work," he said.

But everyone will get one free pass to learn the system.

During the first 30 days of the program, drivers will receive only a warning if they are caught on tape; they won't have to pay the $50 citation.

But they will receive a first-class letter in the mail including a photo of their vehicle going through the signal, and a close-up photo of their license plate. They also will receive a pin number and be directed to a Web site where they can watch a video clip of themselves running the light.

Much like a parking ticket, it is assumed that the owner of the car is the one who was in violation. However, there are provisions for circumstances where someone might be borrowing another person's car or a car is stolen.

"The ordinance provides a defense if the owner swears he or she was not the driver and provides us with a name," Staples said. Also, if the owner has a copy of a police report he or she made before the violation occurred that says the car was stolen, the owner can be excused. But "you can't run through the red light today and report your car stolen the next day," Staples said.

After the warning period ends, the next citation will be the real thing, fee and all. Drivers can expect to get their citation in the mail within 30 days of running a red light at one of the four intersections.

And emergency vehicles won't be exempt from getting a citation. They will have to pay the $50 if they drive through the red light without their emergency lights on.

The citation is considered to be a civil penalty, much like a parking ticket. "You pay it, and the slate's clean," Staples said, adding that the citations for running red lights will not be reported to insurance companies.

"We're not trying to be ugly. We're trying to stop people from hurting each other," Adams said.

Claudette Burns said she has never been in an accident in her life, but she's seen plenty of them.

Burns is an assistant manager at Dunkin' Donuts off Old Hickory Boulevard, which sees its busiest customer traffic between 6 and 11 a.m. Most of the accidents she sees from the store's window occur when "people are running the light," she said.

"If people know a traffic camera is there, they might slow down," she said.

American Traffic Solutions, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company and authorized vendor of the Red Light Photo Enforcement System for the city of Jackson, reports a high success rate for the system.

With the traffic cameras installed, "a city is going to see a 30 (percent) to 50 percent drop in accident rates in the first year," said Bill Kroske, vice president of ATS, in a phone interview from Arizona.

New York City has the longest-running traffic camera program, Kroske said. From 1994 to 2004, New York has seen a 72 percent reduction in violations.

State Trooper Johnny Briley is hopeful that the traffic cameras will make a dent in crash rates in Jackson.

"They've been using them in Germantown for some time. From all the things I'm hearing, it's helped them there," Briley said.

In 2002, Germantown became the first city in Tennessee to implement a red light enforcement program. Red Bank is another Tennessee city that is a fan of the traffic safety program.

ATS studied the intersections in Jackson before making their recommendation.

"If a city doesn't have more than 10 violations a day, we don't recommend the traffic camera program," Kroske said. But recent crash summary numbers for the identified intersections in Jackson showed the Hub City to be a prime candidate for the program.

Motorist Erika Jones, of Brownsville, didn't need a study to tell her how dangerous Jackson intersections are. The 28-year-old is eager to see a program that will help cut down on reckless driving. "That would be good. It might cut down on a lot of accidents," she said.

The traffic cameras also are expected to help reduce the risk of injuries and fatalities to police officers who are hurt during traffic stops, which pose greater dangers to officers than some people realize. In order to make a traffic stop safe, two or three patrol cars might be needed - one behind the light and two ahead of the light to pursue the violator.

Otherwise, in order to catch someone who runs a red light, Staples said, "You've got to run the light."

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- Wendy Isom, 425-9782

Originally published July 10, 2006