The lure of easy money can’t be resisted. It tempts the defenders of red-light cameras to say whatever it takes to keep the money-making machines running. In a letter to the editor, Alexandria Police Chief Earl L. Cook takes issue with a recent editorial that identified just how dangerous a game the city has been playing (“Alexandria’s voluntary cameras,” Aug. 2). Here’s the whole story.
Local governments around the country have been eager to hand over law-enforcement responsibilities to private companies that only care about exploiting public fears to make big money. Here, Alexandria has deputized an Australian firm, Redflex Traffic Systems, to watch over city streets and collect a fine each time someone makes a technical mistake. These include harmless, rolling right-hand turns on red and misjudging a yellow light by a split second. When such cameras operated in six Northern Virginia communities between 1997 and 2005, accidents increased 29 percent overall, according to Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) data.
Alexandria’s drive to revive this failed experiment shows a certain disregard for public safety, but there’s more to it. Contrary to Chief Cook’s denial, the city has manipulated one of the city’s three camera intersections in a way that will make the program doubly hazardous the second time around.
The duration of the yellow light at an intersection is directly linked to how many citations - and how much revenue - a traffic camera can generate. Recognizing this, Georgia and Ohio protected their citizens by enacting laws that mandate photo-enforced intersections have one second added to the duration of the yellow. The idea was so effective that a half-dozen cities in the Peach State canceled their red-light camera programs because they weren’t able to make any money.
Alexandria doesn’t care about that. As The Washington Times verified through VDOT documents and the use of a stopwatch, drivers see a yellow light for three seconds before the light changes to red at the intersection of Gibbon Street and Patrick Street. This is as short as a yellow can get under Federal Highway Administration regulations, but it wasn’t always so.
When Alexandria first installed a red-light camera at this location in November 1997, the signal was also set at three seconds. Despite the number of tickets issued, there was no safety benefit. So, the city increased the yellow to four seconds in the spring of 1999, resulting in a 75 percent drop in violations - nearly all of which had occurred within the first second after the light turned red, according to VDOT data.
Alexandria’s city manager noted the benefit of adding that extra second in an April 2000 memo, which stated, “Red light violations have decreased at the three intersections, although staff cannot attribute how much of the decrease in violations is due to the red-light camera program (there were changes in traffic signalization at the Seminary & Nottingham and Patrick & Gibbon intersections, for instance, that appeared to significantly lower red-light camera violations at those intersections).” Mark Canoyer, a division chief for the Alexandria Police Department, wrote in an email to VDOT that the “retiming of the yellow phase” at and around these intersections “had a dramatic effect.”
Today, the city attempts to dodge the facts by claiming the yellow hasn’t been changed since 2008. The fact is, Alexandria ignored the safety evidence and shortened the yellow after the program’s end in 2005 but before its current reincarnation.
It’s not hard to guess why. Northern Virginia’s red-light cameras spewed out a whopping 284,325 tickets by the end of 2003. This would have generated a cool $14 million had they all been paid. They weren’t, and nonpayment has become a national problem for these camera shakedowns. That’s why Alexandria today is claiming unpaid citations “will be turned over to a collection agency.” Similar assertions were once made in Los Angeles, where those who trashed their near-$500 red-light tickets did indeed receive two very threatening collection letters. Under questioning from the L.A. city council last month, however, city staff admitted that no further action was ever taken.
The situation was the same in the commonwealth between 1997 to 2005. As VDOT put it in a 2005 report, “Unless a jurisdiction is willing to devote resources to implementing extensive in-hand service, citations mailed for red-light camera violations become essentially unenforceable. The average citizen is probably not aware of this loophole, but if word were widely disseminated, such knowledge could completely undermine the effectiveness of red-light camera programs, as citations issued to violators would lose their practical impact.” Alexandria’s collection rate was 64 percent. There is no way the police department could have knocked on 19,079 doors to deliver the unpaid tickets in person, as the law requires.
On this point, the statutes have not changed, but there is a new requirement that serves as an additional hurdle should Alexandria decide to report motorists to a credit bureau. If a mailed ticket is ignored, the law states the summons “shall be executed” with personal service. Personal delivery is not optional, if a city wants to pursue the matter. A new section of the Virginia Code adds that, “If a locality does not execute a summons for a violation of this section within 10 business days, all information collected pertaining to that suspected violation shall be purged within two business days.”
When it comes to parking tickets, Virginia law authorizes cities to tow cars that accumulate three unpaid citations, directs municipalities to issue warrants for delinquent fines and sets limits on collecting parking debt. Alexandria will likely argue that a red-light camera citation is like a parking ticket, but it is not. The photo-enforcement statute provides no authority to a private contractor looking to hand over a vehicle owner’s information to a credit bureau or collection agency. The penalty for unauthorized use of a vehicle owner’s information is $1,000 per disclosure, with a judge given the ability to cancel the contractor’s access to Department of Motor Vehicle information.
Virginia jurists aren’t known for going easy on motorists, so there’s no guarantee a particular judge would follow the clear letter of the law and require personal service of tickets. The advantage, however, goes to the driver whose challenge risks a mere $50 compared to the $1,000 Redflex - the Australian camera operator - stands to lose per driver for abusing the system. Pursuing collections opens up the entire scam to being shut down if there’s a single judge who believes the Constitution’s guarantee of due process has meaning.