Metro red-light cameras produce accidents, then results
By BRENDEN SAGER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 04/02/06
In this age of high-tech photography, a $200,000 camera has brought Kathy Richie very up-close and almost personal with a variety of strangers at Cobb Parkway and Windy Hill Road.
Or rather, it has been the fear of the lurking red-light camera that has put her on both sides of near-collisions.
"I've almost been rear-ended on more than one occasion at this intersection," Richie said. "And I've almost rear-ended someone else."
Welcome to the unintended consequences of traffic enforcement in a digital age.
With red-light cameras such as this one in Marietta popping up across Georgia like dandelions (and about as welcome), drivers and police are learning that the devices actually cause more accidents immediately after they're installed. But the severity of those accidents is lower, and they drop markedly as ticket-fearing drivers become familiar with their locations, according to a national study by the Federal Highway Administration. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of four sites in the state reflects that initial uptick.
The nondescript cameras that made their ticketing debut in the Atlanta area about three years ago help fill the coffers of traffic courts by letting police mail tickets to the owners of cars photographed cruising through an unambiguously red light. But aside from that financial boost, the federal study also found the cameras caused a drop in T-bone and head-on collisions that often result in severe medical injuries.
Advocates say that any change in traffic signals or signs causes more accidents.
Data from four red-light camera intersections across the state demonstrate this effect. The intersections in DeKalb, Chatham, Cobb and Floyd counties showed a bump in accidents immediately after the cameras were installed. The cameras haven't been in operation long enough to see a steady decline suggested in last year's national study, which took in 132 electronically monitored intersections.
Authors of the study did not return calls for interviews.
The intersection where Richie had her close encounters — and where she also has earned a $94.50 traffic ticket — was a prime candidate for a red-light camera. Marietta police chose that site for the city's first camera because it was once deemed the most dangerous in the state, according to a State Farm Insurance study.
Marietta first had a red-light camera test project in 2000 at Windy Hill and Cobb Parkway, but it didn't issue tickets. The Legislature authorized local governments to issue photo citations the following year. Because of challenges to the law and other bureaucratic delays, no tickets were issued for two more years.
Since then, city police have issued more than $2.7 million in fines.
Marietta officials proudly point out that the camera has produced unquestionable safety results. There were two fatal accidents in 2003, the year before enforcement began, but there has been none since.
However, between 2004 and 2005, rear-end collisions soared from 65 to 97. Nonetheless, the city was satisfied with the overall results, and it bought another camera for Allgood Road at Cobb Parkway. Each light costs $200,000 for equipment and installation. The city also pays the manufacturer, LaserCraft of Norcross, $285,000 each year to maintain the cameras.
LaserCraft has contracts with police departments across the state, including Decatur. Marietta and Decatur were the first cities in the state to install red-light cameras, and Snellville, Duluth and Atlanta are among the cities that have followed suit. Roswell plans them for this summer.
LaserCraft processes the images and issues documentation to the Marietta police to issue a ticket. LaserCraft President Scott Patterson says that, unquestionably, the cameras are a public benefit.
"I am convinced the cameras reduce accidents," Patterson said.
But the National Motorists Association, a Wisconsin-based drivers advocacy group, says photo enforcement is about money for cities and manufacturers rather than safety.
"These devices don't increase safety at all. I certainly don't consider it a safety improvement when you have more of one type of accident and less of another," said Eric Skrum, National Motorists Association spokesman. "Revenue is a key issue here. Every agency that supports the red-light camera has a financial interest. Solutions like better traffic engineering are not being looked at in favor of cash."
Skrum said legislatures in several states have considered banning the cameras entirely.
"You're certainly not seeing a groundswell of support for the cameras," he said. "Whenever we see an instance where a red-light camera is removed, it's because it's not paying for itself."
Patterson acknowledged the effect that the cameras have on rear-end accidents. However, that effect is true of any enforcement upgrade — as in from stop sign to traffic light, he said.
"They'll tell you if you have a four-way stop sign and replace it with a traffic signal, rear-end accidents jump," Patterson said. "That's because there's the yellow light. People say, 'Is this guy stopping in front of me, or is he going?' They guess wrong."
Dionne Maddox is philosophical about the safety benefits that red-light cameras bring. Maddox, who lives in Atlanta, recently ran a red light on her drive to a church function. She got a $70 ticket shortly after in the mail.
"I believe they're a very effective deterrent. I'm a lot more cautious when I see a red-light camera now," Maddox said, adding that the ticket cost is too high.
"Any costs coming out of your pocket will deter people."
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