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Media Report: Portland, Oregon Red Light Cameras

KATU News Story
By Anna Song and KATU Web Staff
November 11, 2005

PORTLAND, Ore. – They are the quiet, watchful eyes observing drivers from street corners throughout the city, red light cameras that watch and wait for us to barrel through that red light.

Sometimes, you realize right away that you have been caught and then comes the really fun part, getting that $237 ticket in the mail.

The city’s Transportation Department and the Portland Police Bureau say the high tech devices are doing the job.

“The cameras are a very clear message to motorists that it is not OK to run red lights,” Rob Burchfield, P.E., Traffic Engineer for the City of Portland, told KATU News. “So far, the evidence we see is that safety is improving.”

Burchfield pointed out that there has been a 10 percent drop in red light running citations since the cameras first went in three years ago, from 20,000 in 2002 down to a projected 18,000 this year.

Another major benefit is fewer t-bone accidents, a few of which are actually caught on tape with red light cameras.

However, while the number of t-bone accidents have gone down, the number of rear-end accidents have gone up at intersections where red light cameras were installed.

The accidents often happen because people slam on their brakes to avoid getting a ticket, leaving little time for the driver behind them to react.

The city’s traffic numbers obtained by KATU News show a 140 percent increase in rear-end crashes at the intersections where red light cameras were installed.

“That’s a tough one,” said Elliot Eki with AAA of Oregon. “That’s a tough call. You know, who’s at fault?”

Eki said the data heightens the motor club’s concerns that red light cameras are more about generating revenue than making roads safer.

However, Burchfield says revenue is not the goal and that this outcome was expected all along.

“There is some tradeoff between the angle crashes and an increase in rear-end crashes,” he said.

The difference is the severity of injury. Rear-end crashes do not tend to be as disastrous as side angle or t-bone crashes, something most drivers we talked to grudgingly accept.

“You can either get in a rear-end accident trying to stop or you can get in an accident out in the intersection by getting in somebody else’s way who is trying to cross on a green,” said driver Tom Chatterton.

AAA recommends that drivers tap on their brakes before reaching an intersection where the light is about to turn red.

That signals to the person behind, who might be tailgating you, that you are about to stop.

In the course of doing this story, KATU learned a few more surprising things – the cameras do not always flash when they should and nearly half of the potential tickets never get issued.

While capturing video for our story, we shot plenty of people getting busted plowing through red lights and triggering the cameras to flash.

However, there were also plenty of times that the cameras did not flash, like when we shot video at the intersection of S.W. 19th and West Burnside.

Again and again we saw cars cruising through full red lights without ever triggering a flash.

We know the cameras were working because they had flashed at other violators just moments before.

According to the city’s Transportation Department, there are certain situations where the camera will not flash, like when a vehicle is in an outside lane and outside of the view of the camera lens.

Also, at some locations, the vehicle needs to be traveling at a high enough speed to trigger the camera.

As for what KATU caught on camera, the city said they will be checking with the contractor to make sure the cameras are working properly.

Something else we learned – nearly half of all potential red light tickets do not actually get issued.

Unlike Washington, Oregon is a driver responsibility state, which means a good quality photo of both the driver and the license plate must be captured by the camera.

That information is then checked against the registered owner of the vehicle and their picture that was taken at DMV. If the items do not match up, then no ticket is given.

Last year, 47 percent of red light runners never got a ticket, either because they did not have a front license plate, a gender match could not be determined or the driver’s identity just was not clear.

Portland traffic police say there is only one brand of license plate cover out there that deflects the camera’s eye, although they will not say which one that is.