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Media Report: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Red-Light Cameras

Philadelphia Weekly
Red-Light District
Rear-end collisions have increased at intersections with traffic cameras.
by Gwen Shaffer

The red-light cameras recently installed at three intersections on Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia may give new meaning to the expression “bumper-to-bumper traffic.”

That’s because the number of rear-end collisions has shot up at the intersections of both Red Lion Road and Grant Avenue since the cameras were installed, according to statistics obtained from the Philadelphia Police Department. The cameras are intended to increase safety along busy, accident-prone Roosevelt Boulevard.

Ninety-one auto accidents occurred at the intersection of Grant Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard between Feb. 23 and Sept. 4, including one fatal crash. The intersection was the scene of 82 accidents–one deadly–during this same time period in 2004, before the cameras existed, according to the Philadelphia Police Department.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PENNDOT) installed red-light cameras at this location in February. Grant Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard has claimed the highest accident rate of any intersection in the city for the past six years.

Red-light cameras began taking photos at the intersection of Red Lion Road and Roosevelt Boulevard on May 21. Thirty-nine auto accidents occurred there between June 21 and Sept. 4. That’s seven crashes more than the 32 accidents that took place during the same time period in 2004, according to police records.

PENNDOT recently installed a third set of red-light cameras at the intersection of Cottman Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard, but accident statistics for that site are not yet available.

City Councilman Frank Rizzo, who sponsored legislation allowing the cameras to be installed, says he’s concerned about the increase in rear-end collisions. But, he adds, he’s not surprised.

“This situation is predictable,” he says. “When drivers see a camera or even a police officer at an intersection, they do erratic things. They may stop quickly or turn to avoid getting a traffic ticket.”

Following a grace period that ended in June, the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) began sending out $100 tickets to motorists caught on camera running red lights.

The PPA website acknowledges that the installation of red-light cameras may “temporarily” lead to a jump in rear-end collisions.

“However, any small increase in these minor accidents returns to previous levels when drivers begin to slow down and comply with the speed limits and traffic signal phases,” the website states, adding that more “severe” accidents decline “dramatically” after red-light cameras are mounted.

But traffic studies conducted in other states that operate red-light cameras contradict this claim.

The Virginia Transportation Research Council released a study in January finding that the “net effect” of red-light cameras was more injuries. While accidents caused by drivers running red lights dropped by 24 percent to 33 percent, the study concluded that rear-end crashes shot up between 50 percent and 71 percent at these same intersections.

Researchers at the North Carolina Urban Transit Institute conducted a 57-month analysis of red-light cameras, taking into consideration variables such as heavy traffic and weather.

“The results do not support the view that red-light cameras reduce crashes,” read the final report. “Instead we find that [the cameras] are associated with higher levels of many types and severity categories of crashes.”

PENNDOT officials insist it’s “premature” to judge the effectiveness of the red-light cameras along Roosevelt Boulevard.

“Full-fledged enforcement began only in June,” says PENNDOT spokesperson Rich Kirkpatrick, adding that red-light cameras are “just one of the tools used to address ongoing traffic violations on Roosevelt Boulevard.”

PENNDOT has provided $650,000 over the past two years for bolstered police enforcement “on the entire length of the Boulevard,” Kirkpatrick says. Officers issued 5,504 citations for “hazardous moving violations” on the road during 2004 alone, he adds.

Councilman Rizzo characterizes many of the accidents at the intersections of Grant Avenue and Red Lion Road as “minor fender-benders” or “scratched paint” that drivers “insist on reporting to the police for insurance purposes.”

“Anecdotally, I think the cameras are doing a good job,” he says.

Rizzo can speak only anecdotally because the PPA refuses to release data on the number of $100 citations issued.

“The law says we’re not allowed to discuss anything related to the red-light cameras,” says PPA spokesperson Linda Miller.

According to a provision in the Pennsylvania statute, photographs, written records, reports, names, addresses and violation statistics regarding the use of cameras at intersections “shall not be deemed a public record.” Even for City Council members and other local politicians who request it.

“How can I determine whether the city is hooked up with a good project without these statistics?” Rizzo asks, noting that he’s urging state lawmakers to amend the law.

Rizzo also says he’d like to see members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly stay out of the process determining where red-light cameras will be mounted in the future.

“Some state representatives simply want them in their districts,” Rizzo says. “But we need traffic engineers making these decisions, not politicians.”

The PPA tentatively plans to install cameras at six additional intersections in Philadelphia. These sites include Kensington Avenue at Clearfield Street, Richmond Street at both Allegheny and Castor avenues; Aramingo Avenue at York Street, Broad Street at Washington Avenue, and Thompson Street at Lehigh Avenue.