Thursday, January 26, 2006
Columbia Missourian
In the red
Hindman asks City Council to consider traffic light cameras


January 26, 2006

Speeding through intersections to beat the red light could become a bad habit of the past for Columbia residents.

At the City Council’s Jan. 17 meeting, Mayor Darwin Hindman asked Columbia police to produce a report on the use of red light cameras — devices that photograph vehicles running red lights — to combat the problem.

“People call Columbia a red light running capital,” Hindman said. “And this is so dangerous. It needs to be stopped.” But, he said, running red lights is a problem everywhere, not just in Columbia.

The use of the cameras to catch violators is on the upswing in Missouri. Springfield’s City Council voted Monday to install them. Three St. Louis suburbs, Arnold, Florissant and St. Peters, also voted to do the same.

At least one Missouri legislator wants to put the brakes on the enforcement trend. Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, proposed a bill banning the cameras’ use, questioning the legality of using a picture to convict a driver of disobeying traffic laws.

Red light cameras monitor intersections by automatically photographing vehicles whose drivers run red lights, producing a picture of the rear of the car, license plate and the red light.

Most camera systems also record the date, time of day, time elapsed between the onset of the red light signal and the vehicle’s entering the intersection and vehicle speed. In some cases, video cameras are used to provide a short clip of the offense instead of a still shot.

Violations recorded by the cameras are reviewed in the same manner as other violations. When it is clear that a vehicle ran a red light, the owner — who may not be the driver — is mailed a ticket.

In 2004, more than 900 people were killed and an estimated 168,000 were injured in accidents that involved red light running, according to a nationwide study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. About half of those killed were pedestrians or occupants of vehicles struck by a red light runner.

In 2005, Columbia police issued 379 tickets and 285 warnings for traffic signal violations. Of those citations, 101 were given after accidents. In 2004, they issued 488 tickets and 392 warnings, 115 following accidents. The number of tickets and warnings given in previous years was comparable.

Although 664 citations for traffic signal violations represents only slightly over 4 percent of all Columbia traffic citations in 2005, the problem is bigger than the number signifies. Police Chief Randy Boehm said it’s difficult to catch red light runners and to prevent the crime.

An officer needs to be in a specific position at the intersection to spot the offender, Boehm said. To actually see the light turn red, he has to be either behind the offender or on the side, which is not always possible.

Additionally, catching red light runners in person presents safety issues for officers. If an officer is in a police car and sees a red light runner, it may be difficult and dangerous for him to turn around in traffic to catch up to the offender, Traffic Unit Supervisor Sgt. Timothy Moriarity said. In such cases, the officer may be forced to run the light himself, decding if catching the offender is worth the safety risk.

“This sometimes causes more problems than the offender,” Moriarity said.

That’s where the red light cameras could have the advantage. The results of studies by several organizations, including the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, indicate that the cameras are effective in reducing red light running and intersection crashes.

“Although it has only been in place for a couple months, I believe it has already increased safety,” Major Richard Shular of the Arnold Police Department said.

An April study by the Federal Highway Administration that evaluated red light camera systems in seven cities found that, on average, right-angle crashes decreased by 25 percent while rear-end collisions increased by 15 percent.

Because right-angle crashes at traffic lights are more life-threatening and more expensive than rear-end crashes, the increase in rear-end crashes was more than offset by the decrease in right-angle crashes, according to the study.

The cost of red light camera systems varies based on the type of camera and complexity of the intersection, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Sometimes, a single red light camera is moved between various intersections to monitor drivers in different places without the expense of multiple cameras.

Jim Tuton, president of American Traffic Solutions, which has contracted camera systems to both Arnold and Florissant, said a single camera costs over $100,000. The company also allows clients to rent cameras for between $4,000 and $5,000 per month. A city can either pay up front or use revenue from tickets to pay for the cameras after they are in place.

Crowell said he worries about private-sector involvement in traffic enforcement. In December 2005, he introduced a bill in the Senate that if passed, would ban the use of “automated traffic control systems,” including red light cameras. He said he’s bothered by the fact that some camera companies make money on each ticket issued and that in some places in the country, the companies themselves decide the timing of the light cycles at camera locations and have a role in writing the tickets. Sometimes, the companies are the only parties ever to view the photographs and can be responsible for sending tickets to drivers.

“Private companies employing civilians should not be able to control traffic lights and certainly should not profit from citations,” Crowell said. “Law enforcement officers who go through certified training should be the only ones issuing citations.”

Hindman said the passage of Crowell’s bill would be a “serious mistake,” as red light cameras are designed to save lives, not to make money.

As the police department is still in “very preliminary stages” of discussion, Boehm said, no decisions have yet been made about where the cameras would be placed or for how much tickets would be issued. Locations with the most accidents will get a close look, Boehm said.

“These cameras would not be secrets designed to catch people,” Hindman said. “They are just to make sure people drive properly.”

The proposal that will result from the report Hindman requested should be ready for a first reading at the Feb. 6 council meeting. A second reading and public discussion are likely to be held at the Feb. 20 meeting.