Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Alexandria started using red-light traffic cameras at three intersections last week. In a press release, Police Chief David P. Baker, said, “This is a public safety program and our goal is to deter red-light runners and prevent accidents resulting from these violations.” The problem with this explanation is that Alexandria’s streets are already safe, and red-light cameras increase accidents. The real motivation is revenue.

Allstate Insurance Co. sorted through its accident claims database to find which cities had the fewest collisions, and Alexandria came out on top. On July 8, the company awarded the title “America’s Most Improved Driving City” to Alexandria over 200 other U.S. cities because resident motorists were three times less likely to be involved in a collision today than they were in 2005. “This important recognition demonstrates that our residents are committed to safe, attentive driving practices on our roads,” Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille gushed in a statement.

It’s curious that Mr. Euille sees the need to bring red-light cameras back to the city when accident rates are going down without them — especially when it has been shown that traffic cameras make intersections more dangerous. Accidents jumped 43 percent at intersections with traffic cameras the last time Alexandria operated red-light cameras, between 1998 and 2005. That’s according to data compiled by the Virginia Transportation Research Council, a joint venture between the Virginia Department of Transportation and the University of Virginia. Statewide, accidents serious enough to cause injuries increased 18 percent at red-light camera intersections.

Red-light cameras might not be safe, but they are profitable. Last week, American Traffic Solutions (ATS) was scheduled to begin mailing vehicle owners $50 tickets at the intersections of South Patrick and Gibbon streets, South Patrick and Franklin streets and Duke and South Walker streets.

In re-establishing this dangerous program, Alexandria leaders have themselves thumbed their noses at the law. When the General Assembly in 2007 conceded to local bureaucrats’ demands for permission to use robotic ticketing devices, many lawmakers were not convinced such programs were worthwhile. As a compromise, lawmakers allowed the use of cameras as long as cities abided by a series of operational restrictions. The state, for example, sought to prohibit the practice of allowing private contractors to enjoy a financial incentive in issuing tickets. So state law now specifies that, “no locality shall enter into an agreement for compensation based on the number of violations or monetary penalties imposed.”

Yet that is precisely what Alexandria set out to do. A March 2008 memo calculated the financial benefits of a “cost neutral” program. This is how it works: Up to a certain amount, ATS is compensated $50 for each traffic ticket issued. After the monthly target amount of tickets is issued, all subsequent revenue is kept by the city. This arrangement is designed to allow cities to operate red-light camera programs without ever running the risk of having to pay for the program.

The scheme is nothing new. In fact, it is raising controversy across the country. An appellate division ruling of the California Superior Court last year struck down a cost-neutral red-light camera contract on the grounds that it violated a California statute designed to prohibit per-ticket vendor compensation. In June, a class action lawsuit was filed against 19 cities in Washington state over the same issue. It is only a matter of time before a lawsuit is filed in the commonwealth.

To generate revenue, Alexandria officials are running the risk of destroying the already safe driving habits of its residents while putting local taxpayers in legal jeopardy. The safe thing for the city to do is to drop this dangerous red-light camera program.

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