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Media Report: Fort Collins, Colorado Red Light Cameras

The Coloradoan
Accidents increase on camera’s watch
Oct 30, 2005 By MATTHEW BENSON
MattBenson@coloradoan.com

A system of red-light cameras installed at the corner of Drake Road and College Avenue to reduce red-light running might not be working quite as hoped.

The number of accidents and accident rates at the intersection have steadily increased in the years since the city of Fort Collins installed a system in 1997.

In that time, injuries suffered at the intersection haven’t appreciably declined and the number of citations issued for running the light has jumped roughly 64 percent.

Also, the rate of accidents per 1 million vehicles entering the intersection climbed from 1.31 in 1994 to 2.4 last year. The intersection remains the city’s second most dangerous in terms of the accident rate.

The figures – gleaned from a Fort Collins Coloradoan analysis of a decade’s worth of accident data – call into question the effectiveness of the camera system at reducing red-light running and preventing collisions.

City officials, meanwhile, are considering adding red-light cameras to a second Fort Collins intersection. That decision likely will be made in mid-2006, though City Council has been warm to the idea.

Lt. Gary Perman of Fort Collins police conceded that evidence of the effectiveness of the red-light cameras is anecdotal but insisted the system works.

“There’s no doubt in my mind it reduces the number of red-light violations. I think it keeps people from running the red light who otherwise would have run it,” he said. “Prevention is always a difficult thing to measure. How do you gauge something that isn’t happening?”

But City Manager Darin Atteberry said the accident figures give him pause about expanding the red-light camera system.

“It gives me some questions. I have been told consistently this will improve safety and reduce injury accidents,” he said. “These are questions I’ll ask of police services and transportation engineering.”
The system operates at Drake and College with a series of six cameras. When a driver enters the intersection after the light turns red, the cameras photograph the vehicle, its rear license plate and driver.

Violators receive a ticket in the mail for $75, which they can pay or contest in court.

The cameras are meant to address a problem that’s deadly serious: In 2002, 3,000 deaths and 476,000 injuries nationwide were related to drivers running red lights, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

But critics of red-light cameras say the systems don’t work. Moreover, they argue the cameras actually lead to an increase in rear-end accidents as drivers slam on their brakes to avoid citations.

Some of the statistics at Drake and College appear to bear out that claim. In 2004, for example, the intersection had 34 rear-end accidents. All but six were in the northbound or southbound lanes, those that are watched by the red-light cameras.

Eric Skrum, communications director for the National Motorists Association, pointed to a Washington Post examination of the effectiveness of Washington, D.C.’s 45 intersections with red-light cameras.

From 1998 to 2004, the newspaper found that the number of crashes at locations with cameras more than doubled. Injury and fatal crashes climbed 81 percent, and broadside wrecks — considered among the most dangerous — increased 30 percent.

Signal-light intersections without cameras saw a 64 percent increase in overall crashes, a 54 percent hike in injury and fatal wrecks and a 17 percent increase in broadside collisions.

“Our position has always been that the cameras are ineffective,” Skrum said.

In Fort Collins, wrecks at the corner of Drake and College dipped briefly following the installation of the red-light camera system. In 1998, the first full year it was in place, the intersection saw 44 crashes and an accident rate of 1.6.

The number of wrecks dropped to 38 and the accident rate declined to 1.38 the following year, but both figures were on the rise again by 2000.

Last year, there were 66 accidents at the intersection, including seven with injuries.

Skrum said communities often look to cameras as a magic bullet for intersections with a high incidence of red-light runners. Such intersections typically have a design flaw, he said, such as a yellow-light cycle that’s too short and doesn’t allow drivers time to clear the area.

Skrum pointed to Fairfax County, Va. In 2001, the Virginia Department of Transportation increased by 1.5 seconds the length of the yellow-light cycle at an intersection with cameras. The increase in the yellow-light time resulted in a 94 percent drop in citations at the intersection, Skrum said.

“Those accidents don’t have to be occurring,” he said. “If you allow people enough time to clear the intersection or see that yellow light and be able to stop, they won’t run the red light.”

The system of red-light cameras in Fairfax County and across Virginia has since been abandoned. The Virginia General Assembly disbanded the system this year because of concerns about privacy and the cameras’ effectiveness.

In response to a spike in rear-end accidents at Drake and College, Fort Collins recently added one second to the yellow-light time on the northbound and southbound sides of the intersection.

The change was made Aug. 12 so results aren’t yet clear. But Traffic Operations Director Eric Bracke likes what he sees so far: The intersection registered seven wrecks in September 2004 but just three in September 2005.

The number of red-light citations also has been cut by more than half.

Prior to the signal-light adjustment, the cameras were snapping 35 to 40 citation photos a week. Since the change, that number has fallen to roughly 15 a week.

The drop-off has been so precipitous, in fact, that city officials are waiting to see whether the numbers rebound before recommending the addition of cameras to a second intersection. They worry the new cameras would be a money-loser, which is the last thing the city needs in a year when it’s cutting roughly $5 million from its general fund.

Fort Collins contracts with Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. for its system of red-light cameras at Drake and College and a mobile camera van that watches for speeders. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company says it’s the largest provider of digital photo traffic enforcement in North America, with programs in 60 cities across 13 states.

For Redflex’s services, Fort Collins paid $497,000 last year, Lt. Perman said. But the red-light cameras and mobile van generated $734,000 in revenue.

That left the city $237,000 in excess fines, which Perman said was devoted to traffic enforcement and related court and other costs.

As Fort Collins waits to see about adding cameras to a second intersection, it’s moving forward with plans for an additional mobile camera unit to combat speeding. The addition of a second mobile unit and another set of red-light cameras could double the city’s revenue from the program, with a higher profit margin because much of the start-up overhead has already been paid.

Police Chief Dennis Harrison maintained that the camera program has never been about the money.

“It’s all driven by safety factors and accident rates,” he said. “This was never designed, in our application of it, to be a money maker. The first and primary issue will always be safety.”

But he conceded that issue remains a bit of an unanswered question when it comes to the red-light cameras.

“Yes, we do need to continue to look at that,” Harrison said, continuing, “I don’t think there’s a straightforward, apples to apples (comparison) that says we should get rid of it tomorrow.”