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Red Light Cameras: Cash Or Crash?

Written by Brian Maass

GREENWOOD VILLAGE, Colo. (CBS4)- As more and more Colorado municipalities are embracing photo red light technology, that automatically tickets drivers for running red lights, a CBS4 Investigation has found some of the cameras are not having the desired effect of reducing intersection accidents.

The cameras catch drivers who run red lights, sending them a $75 ticket if they are found to be in the intersection after the light has turned red.

"Well, the intent is to reduce the amount of injury accidents," said Fort Colllins Police Department Captain Jim Szakmeister.

Fort Collins has two intersections covered by red light cameras. But CBS4 found the cameras at the intersection of Harmony and Timberline Roads have not had the desired impact. The cameras at that intersection were installed in June of 2007. The year prior to the cameras going in, Fort Collins recorded 33 accidents in the intersection with eight of the accidents involving injuries.

In 2009, there were 52 accidents reported at the intersection, eleven of them involving injuries. Preliminary 2010 data shows 55 accidents at the Harmony-Timberline intersection with 16 of those crashes involving injuries.

"I'm surprised we've seen an increase in injury accidents because the whole goal is to reduce that," said Capt. Szakmeister, who oversees the patrol division.

Asked why the volume of accidents, and injury accidents, are going up not down, Szakmeister said "I have not the foggiest idea."

During the interview, he suggested that a number of factors may be contributing to the upward trend in accidents including more distracted drivers, reconfiguration of the intersection and nearby growth and development that may be putting more cars in the intersection.

"We are concerned the number of accidents has increased," said Joe Olson, traffic engineer for Fort Collins.

Farther south, in Greenwood Village, police are also trying to figure out why one of their red light camera configurations is not driving down intersection accidents. Greenwood Village has three intersections covered by red light cameras. The cameras have produced about $1.5 million in revenue for Greenwood Village since they were installed. Cameras at the intersection of Orchard and Quebec went up in 2005.

"The goal in our city is to reduce traffic accidents, the number and our injury accidents," said Sgt Dustin Varney.

In 2005, Greenwood Village police counted six accidents at the intersection, with three of the wrecks involving injuries. In 2009, there were eight accidents in the intersection, six of them involving injuries. In the first seven months of 2010, there were nine crashes in the intersection, three involving injury.
"That intersection is a mixed bag of data," said Sgt. Varney, "and why, I don't know."

He theorizes nearby development in the last few years may be putting more cars on the road, increasing traffic at the intersection.

Varney said two other intersections covered by red light cameras; Belleview and South Quebec Street and South Yosemite and Arapahoe Road have seen significant reductions in accidents and injuries.

"We're trying to protect you from being injured or killed or you injuring or killing someone else. We believe it's a tool to help manage the situation better," said Varney.

Aurora has four intersections covered by red light cameras. They are planning to add camera coverage at six more intersections. In a memo sent by Aurora Police to the Mayor last year, police wrote that after a five-year analysis of accident data at their photo red light intersections "the data at the intersections shows a mixed result."

The study noted that at the intersection of Mississippi and Potomac, before the cameras went in, the study found 21 rear end collisions. After the cameras, the study noted 52 rear end crashes. At Iliff and Blackhawk, the Aurora study shows there were 18 rear end crashes before the cameras, 44 accidents after the cameras were installed.

"I don't have a real strong explanation for it," said Aurora Police Division Chief Roger Cloyd, talking about the unexpected numbers. "We have seen a decrease at some intersections and an increase at some intersections."

Cloyd said while rear end collisions may have increased at some intersections, broadside and t-bone wrecks that typically cause more serious injuries are down.

"My hope is that serious accidents go down and that's been our experience so far. It's effective in holding people accountable and in my mind that's why we're expanding the program. It's holding people accountable for bad driving behavior," said Cloyd.

Jim Frye, a vocal critic of photo red light cameras in Aurora, is considering putting together a ballot measure so Aurora residents can vote on whether the cameras stay or go.

"To me, they are just a revenue generating machine for the city and not having an impact on safety," said Frye.

Frye dismisses national studies that show red light photo enforcement has saved lives.

"They ought to have more officers on the street instead of these mechanized money collecting machines raising revenue for the city," said Frye.

Around the Front Range, many municipalities provide numbers showing their red light cameras are reducing accidents. The City of Boulder provides figures showing a reduction in accidents of nearly 60%. Commerce City recently installed its first red light camera. In a short period of time, accidents are down by about 50 percent at that intersection. Cherry Hills Village says its red light camera has dramatically reduced crashes.

But across the country, voters from Houston to Maryland to California have voted to pull the plug on their cameras, in some cases saying the cameras did not succeed in cutting accidents.

Additional Resources

Click here to see Greenwood Village's Accident Report, Boulder's Red Light Enforcement Analysis, Cherry Hills Village Photo Red Light Assessment and Aurora's Accident Analysis.

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