- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2005

Red-light cameras in Northern Virginia will be unplugged tomorrow, as a 10-year pilot program expires.

A state legislative committee in February voted not to continue the automated traffic-enforcement program, which has been operating in six Northern Virginia localities and Virginia Beach.

Several already have turned off their cameras, but some local lawmakers plan to fight for the program, which they say is a cost-effective way to catch red-light runners and make roads safer.

“It’s impossible to have enough police officers out to enforce red-light running. It makes sense to use technology,” said state Sen. Jeannemarie A. Devolites Davis, Fairfax Republican. “There are more severe crimes that we want our police officers to be taking care of.”

Critics, including delegates who voted to end the program, say the cameras are money-making devices that invade a residents’ privacy and cause rear-end collisions.

Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax counties, Fairfax City, Falls Church and Vienna have used red-light cameras.

The pilot program began in 1995 and allowed jurisdictions to issue a $50 ticket through the mail. Legislation that was rejected this year would have extended the program until 2007.

Mrs. Davis was one of several lawmakers who tried to keep the program going. She said this week she hopes some localities will leave the cameras up so that residents will think they are in use and continue to stop at red lights.

“It clearly works. It clearly changes behavior,” she said.

The program stands little chance of legislative approval without a major shift in the makeup of the Republican-controlled General Assembly. All 100 House delegates are up for re-election in November.

Bills that would strengthen or continue the program usually pass in the state Senate and fail in the House, where many lawmakers from rural areas say the cameras too closely resemble “Big Brother.”

A December 2004 study conducted by the Virginia Transportation Research Council showed a reduction in car crashes at nearly all of the intersections where the cameras were placed.

The council, which was formed by the Virginia Department of Transportation and the University of Virginia, recommended the program continue and said the cameras “reduced the number of crashes directly attributable to red-light running.”

The study also showed that the number of rear-end crashes increased at some intersections.

Results tabulated an “insignificant decrease” in the number of crashes in Fairfax City and Falls Church and a “significant decrease” in Fairfax County and Vienna. The other jurisdictions were not included in the results.

Arlington and Alexandria already have turned off the cameras, though officials in both localities would like the program to continue.

“It seems like such a simple idea to stop at a red light, yet too many people don’t,” Alexandria Police spokeswoman Amy Bertsch said.

“We have different traffic challenges in Northern Virginia than in the rest of the state. Photo enforcement was so much easier and far more cost effective,” Miss Bertsch said. “No officer can stop every person who runs a red light, that’s just not possible.”

She said the city spent far more on the program than it reaped in fines. “If anyone thought we made money, they are wrong,” she said.

Several jurisdictions predict their budgets will be better off after the program ends.

“We’ve probably lost $1 million over five years, and I hesitate to say ‘lost,’” Fairfax County Traffic System Program Manager Bruce Taylor said of the cameras. “When you look at societal costs, obviously, it prevents people from getting hurt.”

Falls Church tallied its revenue impact down to the penny.

Over the three-year history of its red-light camera program, the city issued 25,000 violations. Minus administrative costs — which include a uniformed officer viewing the cameras’ videotapes and making a judgment on violations — the city earned 6 cents per ticket, for an average of $500 a year.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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