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Rochester’s Red Light Camera Program; is it about Revenues or Public Safety?

By Sharese Hardaway

Last month, three days after three motorists filed a punitive class action lawsuit against New York City’s Red Light Camera program; Rochester equipped two new intersections with cameras.

The motorists in the New York City lawsuit assert that the city’s yellow traffic signals are rigged to turn to red too quickly, not giving drivers enough time to get through the yellow light. This is just another issue being raised in the mounting controversy over the Red Light Cameras across the country. An estimated 555 communities across 24 states have red light cameras, while ten have been reportedly banned.

Many motorists are questioning the motivation behind the Red Light Cameras. Are US cities equipping their intersections with these devises to increase public safety or revenue?

The city of Rochester currently has cameras at 31 intersections and plans to add 19 more to bring the total to a state-authorized 50.

In November 2011, Syracuse city officials voted against equipping their intersections with Red Light Cameras as Rochester passed the one year mark with their program. Bill Ryan, Mayor Stephanie Miner’s chief of staff says he learned that seven states – Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Wisconsin – have all banned Red Light Cameras making Syracuse city officials more reluctant to install the cameras.

“As other cities are running away from this, why should we run into it?” Ryan said.

A report released in Los Angeles motorists complained that the Red Light Cameras were installed for revenue over safety. The Los Angeles City Council voted in July 2011 to remove the Red Light Cameras that were installed in 2004. Nassau County has 50 intersections equipped with Red Light Cameras and city officials projected an estimated $38.2 million in revenue.

Since Rochester’s first Red Light Cameras went live in October 2010, the city has issued more than 100,000 tickets. Violators receive a $50 fine that increases to $75 if not paid within 30 days. The city has garnered over $300,000 in monthly revenue and expected to clear $1.5 million by the end of last year.

In its first year revenue collected tripled initial estimates but over $2.8 million in tickets remain unpaid. However, last September the city began turning over delinquent tickets to a collections agency. Officials say that four hundred collection letters are sent out daily. Unlike parking tickets, the city does not utilize boots for delinquent tickets and are not reported to the Department of Motor Vehicles but violators can be assured that if remained unpaid the amount will eventually show up on their credit report.

Rochester Police Chief James Sheppard believes that the cameras are a good idea and are doing the job that the city intended for them to do.

“Ultimately, it has always been about safety,” Chief Sheppard said.” Monroe County controls the lights so we can’t control the timing of the yellow lights. From day one this has been a safety issue.”

“The fact is, even an experienced, seasoned driver will sometimes find himself or herself driving on autopilot and not concentrating on the road,” Sheppard said. “We’re hoping our program will bring more awareness on the road and help save lives. The fact that people know cameras are there should cause them to change their driving habits.”

Sheppard himself has been guilty of at least one red light violation. Last July he was issued a ticket from the program but says he can’t recall where he was headed or why.

Rochester resident Michael Brooks says he thinks it’s really about revenues. “Let’s face it, the city is broke so any extra money they can collect is gonna help to boost their bottom-line,” he noted. “It’s just another way to tax us on the back end.”

Across the country thousands of studies have been conducted regarding red light camera programs. Some data shows decrease in traffic accidents after cameras have been installed while others show an increase in accidents or is inconclusive.

A 2005 Department of Transportation study looked at 1000 intersections across the country equipped with red light cameras. The report concluded that while there was a decrease in right-angle crashes there was an increase in rear-end crashes.

According to the National Motorist Association most of the research done is biased. A note on their website reads “The preponderance of independent research (in other words, research that was not funded by ticket camera vendors or units of government interested in justifying camera-based traffic enforcement) has illustrated that ticket cameras typically increase, not decrease, the number of accidents at controlled intersections.”

So far the data from Rochester’s program has been inconclusive. In a June 2012 report, the city tracked accident reports at seven intersections that had cameras for a full year, comparing the reports to the previous year. All showed a drop or no change in total crashes, but when it came specifically to injury accidents, three showed a decrease and three showed an increase.

City Councilmember Adam McFadden, chair of the Council’s Public Safety, Youth and Recreation Committee says the program was put in place under the recommendation of former Mayor Robert Duffy.

“I think Rochester residents are clearly opposed to the cameras,” McFadden said. “The program clearly generates significant dollars for the city but it was presented to us as a necessary means of ensuring safety and decreasing traffic accidents.”

City Council will have to vote to renew the program when it expires in 2015. Some say that regardless of the data, the council will then be faced with the question of how to replace the significant dollars the cameras generate for the city.