Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Red-light cameras are making their return to Virginia. Don’t believe the propaganda that this has anything to do with safety - it’s all about money.

In two weeks, a for-profit company will begin mailing traffic tickets to the owners of vehicles passing through three Alexandria intersections. The private company, American Traffic Solutions, Inc., operates the traffic cameras, makes the initial decision who is guilty, mails the tickets, collects the fines and then gives the city a cut of the windfall.

This isn’t the first time Alexandria has tried to cash in on photo enforcement. Between 1998 and 2005, Alexandria’s cameras snapped more than 50,000 citations.

Did this multimillion-dollar program improve safety over the course of those seven years? Not according to data compiled by the Virginia Transportation Research Council (VTRC), a joint venture between the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the University of Virginia.

Before cameras were installed, the accident rate at the Alexandria study location was 535 for every million vehicles entering the intersection. After traffic cameras were activated, the accident rate jumped to 765. This 43 percent increase can be attributed primarily to rear-end collisions that happened as drivers, faced with short yellow lights, slammed on the brakes to avoid receiving a ticket in the mail.

Although spin doctors for red-light cameras will try to pass off the bromide that rear-end collisions are preferable to T-bone accidents, the VTRC study showed that the number of accidents serious enough to cause injuries increased 18 percent at red-light-camera intersections throughout Virginia.

Unfortunately, Alexandria has failed to learn from the past and is still depending on all-too short yellow-light timing to make the most of its reinvigorated program. Two of the city’s cameras are stationed on South Patrick Street - one at Gibbon Street and the other at Franklin Street - which is on the busy Route 1 corridor just before drivers begin to merge onto the Beltway.

Drivers get 4.0 seconds of yellow time to cross Gibbon Street before the camera begins snapping, but on the very next block, at Franklin Street, drivers get a half-second less of yellow.

That may not sound like much of a difference, but “85 percent of all citations occurred within 1.30 seconds of the signal changing to red” at Gibbon Street, according to a 2005 VTRC report. Take away another half-second, and Alexandria is betting the number of violations will skyrocket. In fact, VTRC specifically condemned what Alexandria is trying to do. “The practice of issuing citations to motorists by adjusting yellow light times to be inconsistent with the surrounding traffic lights should be avoided,” it warned in 2005.

If Alexandria truly cared about safety, it would increase inadequate yellow-light times. An extra 1.3 seconds at Gibbon Street would eliminate 85 percent of violations. Time and time again, increasing the yellow duration has proved to be the most effective means of reducing violations and increasing safety. But doing so puts profit at risk.

Fortunately, there is some good news for motorists who might receive a ticket in the mail after toodling through Old Town. As The Washington Times reported four years ago, state law says a private company may not simply drop a ticket in a mailbox and expect it to be considered valid service. Unless a driver receives a hand-delivered copy, the citation can be thrown away without consequence. Depriving Alexandria and its revenue-collecting partner of cash is the surest way to ensure this unsafe program disappears for good.

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