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EDITORIAL: Return of the red-light bandits

Roadside theft machines return to Falls Church

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The blinding roadside flashes familiar to motorists in Maryland and the District will return to Northern Virginia in the new year. A private company completed the installation of red-light cameras last week at two Falls Church intersections: Broad and Cherry streets and Broad Street and Annandale Road. The Arizona-based firm American Traffic Solutions (ATS) will use the devices to issue warning notices until Jan. 18, when it will begin mailing out actual citations. Falls Church officials say this program is about safety; don't believe the propaganda.

Proponents of robotic ticketing expect their claims that these machines will magically "save lives" will be taken for granted, but there's no need to do so. Red-light cameras flashed in Falls Church from 2001 through 2004. They did not save a single life, and many more people ended up in hospitals as a result of their use. From the safety standpoint, photo enforcement was a disaster.

According to the Virginia Transportation Research Council's 2007 study, the first dalliance with cameras in Falls Church was accompanied by a 38 percent increase in the total number of accidents. This figure primarily reflects collisions caused by drivers panic-braking in a frantic attempt to avoid being slapped with a ticket for misjudging the transition from a yellow to a red light by a split second. Accidents of this sort jumped 136 percent. Camera hucksters will claim rear-end accidents aren't important because the "T-bone"-angle collisions that cameras purportedly address are more serious. This, of course, is not true. In Falls Church, the number of people injured at red-light-camera intersections increased 79 percent.

At the same time, the city's private vendor was able to issue $1,640,600 worth of tickets. That kind of loot rekindled interest from private vendors. ATS inked a $350,000 annual contract with Falls Church in March 2009, but various problems stalled the new program for more than a year. City bureaucrats even expressed dismay in an Oct. 5, 2009, memorandum about how this delay "resulted in $427,000 in unrealized revenues."

The General Assembly promised it was going to protect residents of the commonwealth from greedy cities by giving the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) oversight responsibility over camera programs. Lawmakers insisted that VDOT would ensure engineering standards were met before cameras could be installed. This agency hasn't taken its responsibility seriously. It has rubber-stamped approval of cameras at locations where no "red-light-running-related" accidents have ever occurred. It approves the use of cameras at locations where cameras previously caused an increase in accidents. It allows cities to use dangerously short - but profitable - yellow-light times.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has done an impressive job of using thorough audits to remedy fiscal mismanagement at VDOT, recovering hundreds of millions for the commonwealth's roads. Mr. McDonnell should step in and force his roads agency to follow the legislature's intent. Red-light-camera approvals should be withdrawn from the various locations around the Old Dominion where yellow warning times are dangerously short and locations have no relevant accident history. If these programs are truly about safety, nobody should complain.

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