Lights, camera, ticket? Meeting will vote on red light photos
By John Ciampa/ Staff Writer
Thursday, April 20, 2006

It’s a proposal that has the support of both the town manager and the chief of police, but some are still not sold on the idea of having traffic cameras placed in town at several key intersections.
During their last session before Town Meeting next week, Finance Committee members debated the merits of Article 22 in the warrant. The article does not seek to approve the cameras, but merely authorizes the Board of Selectmen to investigate acquiring necessary legislation at the state level to make them legal.
Proponents of the article claim that the cameras will cut down on the number of vehicles running red lights and increase traffic safety, while some detractors say that the cameras are a violation of privacy.
But do they work?
Citing articles in the "Washington Post" and the "Weekly Standard," Finance Committee member Derek Donegan said some studies have suggested that surveillance cameras could lead to more accidents. Donegan also said when drivers are aware of the cameras, they have a tendency to brake prematurely at stop lights, leading to an increase in rear-end collisions.
Members Mary Frantz and David Turocy found Donegan’s comments intriguing, and said they would be interested in studying the issue further.
Some members also discussed how a longer yellow light could alleviate the number of rear-end mishaps, though little is known about when the cameras would activate as a vehicle passes through a given intersection.
Finance Committee member Clare Jeannotte felt that the cameras would be an invasion of personal privacy, while Chaiman John Kurland said he agrees with the police department in supporting the idea.
"Both former Chief (Ray) McCusker and Chief (Jim) Murphy favor it in part because of a reduction of the force’s manpower," said Kurland, alluding to the difficulty the department currently has in monitoring the town’s intersections.
"I definitely support it," said Police Chief Jim Murphy. "The bottom line is it will definitely increase safety."
Questions as to whether more staff time would be needed to screen video footage of potential violators were quelled by Kurland when he said that reviewing the tapes would take little time. He also said that, speaking from an attorney’s perspective, the tapes could solve the kinds of litigation problems that often surface after a ticket is issued.
Both Frantz and Turocy said they do not share Jeannotte’s concerns over privacy, and instead were more interested in discussing the safety issues Donegan initially raised.
An ambitious, five-part series that appeared in the "Weekly Standard" in April 2002 by senior writer Matt Labash, "Inside the District’s Red Lights" takes a scathing look at the impact traffic cameras have had in the Washington D.C area.
Another view was presented in an October 2005 piece written by Del Quentin Wilbur and Derek Wilson in the "Washington Post." The article cites the Post’s analysis of accidents that occurred in city intersections with cameras.
Findings include a doubling in accidents at intersections with cameras from 1998 to 2004, an 81 percent increase in injury- and fatality-related crashes and a 30 percent increase in broadside - or right angle - collisions.
But D.C. officials claim that it was increasing traffic levels and not cameras that contributed to those numbers.
Additionally, the article referenced a study conducted by the Federal Highway Administration that showed a 25 percent decrease in broadside collisions at intersections with cameras, though the same study also showed a 15 percent increase in rear-end accidents.
The article concludes with a pair of traffic experts saying the mixed findings suggest cameras may still be useful, provided a thorough investigation is conducted on where they would be most effective.
Currently, Chelmsford officials are leaning toward the Drum Hill Rotary and Central Square as probable locales for traffic cameras.
Both Lawrence and Methuen recently considered camera proposals. Lawrence city councilors approved the measure, while Methuen officials - citing automatic insurance surcharges that would be tacked on to red light violators - rejected it.
Article 22 will be voted on at Town Meeting.

John Ciampa can be reached at