Posted on Sat, Mar. 04, 2006

Macon police considers installing traffic-light cameras

By Tim Sturrock

In an effort to curb accidents at busy city intersections, the Macon Police Department is considering using unmanned cameras to catch red-light runners.

If approved by the City Council, the cameras would be placed at intersections that have a high volume of red-light violations and accidents, police Lt. Eric Woodford said. The cameras would photograph the license plates of violators, who would be sent a traffic ticket by mail.

The department is considering placing the cameras at one to five different locations in the city, he said.

"Everybody I have talked to about this over the last year and a half has said this is a win-win," Woodford said. "Our key goal is to reduce traffic crashes and save lives. It's a proven fact that running a red light can kill."

So far, the police department is only soliciting bids from companies, and any red-light camera system in Macon is at least six months to a year away, Woodford said.

But the plan already is sparking controversy.

Some question the fairness of the ticketing and oppose the possibility of the cameras producing revenue for the city. Others say red-light cameras don't actually improve safety.

Woodford said that while producing revenue is not the objective, the cameras could be a money-maker. He said similar red-light cameras have cost $5,500 a month per intersection and that it would only take two tickets a day for the system to pay for itself, if the city increases the fees.

"We're not in it for the (revenue)," he said. "We're into it to reduce accidents, to save lives."

City Councilman Mike Cranford said he objects to cameras being used to generate revenue.
"The police department is not in the revenue collection business," he said.

Cranford also said the system would be unfair because it punishes a car's owner, not necessarily the driver.

"At my age, if I get a ticket that says I violated a traffic law a month ago, I'm not going to remember who was driving my car, whether it was my wife or my son," Cranford said. "I don't keep a traffic log."
Woodford defended ticketing drivers based on camera surveillance.

"You may not be the driver of the car, but you're the owner, and the owner is totally responsible," he said.

Councilman Stebin Horne said he thinks the cameras would benefit public safety. Horne said he would vote for the cameras if they pay for themselves or generated some income for the city.

"If it did (generate money), then it would be doing its job by catching people breaking the law, but that shouldn't be intent of it," he said.

Councilwoman Elaine Lucas said she is open to the idea but is concerned about the chance for error.

The cost of a ticket for running a red light in Macon is a $70 fine - $50 going to the city and $20 to state government, Municipal Court Clerk John Pattan said. Woodford said that fine could increase to be more of a deterrent.

Although proponents point to accidents as a reason to install the cameras, some argue that running red lights isn't the main cause of wrecks.

"Putting up cameras doesn't solve the problem," said Eric Skrum, communications director for the National Motorists Association. "It just rewards the city for poor engineering."

Creating large traffic lights and longer-timed yellow lights will decrease the number of people running red lights, he said. Also, he said camera enforcement causes drivers to quickly stop at intersections to avoid a violation, and that can create accidents.

A Virginia Department of Transportation study found that rear-end collisions increased at intersections with traffic cameras, but crashes caused by people running red lights decreased.

Overall safety improved because rear-end collisions are generally less severe, the report found.

Woodford said if Macon moved forward with the camera plan, all images would be reviewed by a police officer. Latitude would be given in cases such as funeral processions, he said.

The system would help supplement traffic enforcement in a department still dealing with an officer shortage, he said. It's also part of a new emphasis on improving traffic enforcement, he said, which includes forming a traffic squad when the department has adequate staffing.

Similar cameras already have been installed in Savannah and have been considered in Warner Robins and Perry.

In 2005, four cameras at major intersections in Savannah focused specifically on left-hand turns and produced 13,060 tickets at $70 a piece, said Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan police Cpl. Stan Freeman. That adds up to more than $900,000.

There, violators receive a letter in the mail that alerts them of the violation and refers them to a Web site that shows the image of their car running the light.

"It answers most question right there. That's why we don't have a lot of folks contesting it," Freeman said. So far, there has been a reduction in accidents at those lights, he said.

One of the Chatham County intersections with a camera has been losing about $2,000 a month for a system that costs about $3,800 a month, said Pat Monahan, assistant county manager. But the county is working with the company that sold that particular system to fix the problem, he said. Chatham County can still get out of the deal because the intersection isn't financially feasible.

In Warner Robins, the city is still considering a red-light camera system, said Warner Robins police Maj. John Wagner.

"It's not a dead issue by any means," he said. "It hasn't been acted on, and we're still open to suggestions."

He contends that such a system would be safer and more efficient.

"They are very costly, no doubt about it," he said, "but not necessarily to the city."