As red-light cameras go dark, was it a boon for safety or a bust?

By Larry Higgs | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on December 15, 2014

A red light camera on McCarter Highway near Edison Place in Newark. This camera will be shut off on Dec. 16 and the sign removed shortly afterward

 

What happened to Al Lovey of Wharton might be the poster child for what critics say went wrong with the state red-light camera program.

Lovey said he was making a left turn at a green light at the camera-monitored intersection at Market Street and Route 21 in Newark when he stopped in mid-turn to let a group of pedestrians cross. As he waited for the last pedestrian, as the law requires, Lovey said the light changed red and he knew what was next.

"By the time I could skirt the last pedestrian, the camera had flashed," said the former Newark native.

But supporters said the cameras have changed driver behavior. Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka said before cameras were installed, he'd drive through yellow lights, a habit he's since broken.

"Now when I see an amber light, even at non-camera intersections, I stop for it," he said.

Five years ago, the state red-light camera pilot program started with the best of intentions, to reduce crashes caused by red light runners. Somewhere along the way, perception of the program morphed from Luke Skywalker to Darth Vader in the minds of motorists.

The state program ends on Dec. 16, when red-light cameras at 73 intersections in 24 towns are officially shut off at the end of the 5-year pilot program. After the state Department of Transportation analyzes the data and produces a report, it will recommend whether to kill, continue or expand the cameras.

Cameras must be shut down by the end of the day on Dec. 16 and signs must be removed by Dec. 17 or as soon as practical, said Stephen Schapiro, a state department of Transportation spokesman. Municipalities will have 90 days to issue a summons for any violation issue on or before Dec. 16, he said

What went wrong?

"The primary problem is that the cameras do not reduce the numbers of crashes," said Rick Short, who joined with engineer George Ford to compare red light camera safety claims to raw DOT crash data. "We have proved that the crash reduction percentages spread by the camera industry and town leaders are fictitious."
 
The Short-Ford report showed discrepancies between statistics in the annual DOT camera reports and the raw DOT accident statistics and accident reports they reviewed. Short publicly challenged Newark Mayor Ras Baraka's statistics at a Dec. 5 press conference where Baraka and other officials called for continuing the camera program.

Opponents expressed outrage that right turn on red violations were included among the more serious red light running tickets to inflate statistics. They also pointed to an increase in rear end accidents at camera intersections from drivers who feared a ticket and stopped short.

"Drivers operating their vehicles in a safe manner were cited for split second infractions and failure to completely stop for right turns on red," Short said.  "If towns had issued citations for only the most egregious violations, there would have been greater acceptance."

Supporters said that drivers have modified their behavior in camera intersections, which leads to a drop in accidents and violations.

Union Township police said they've seen 27,000 less drivers running red lights in the past 30 months, which they attribute to the presence of cameras. Union police plan to redeploy staff from other assignments to focus on an anticipated rise in red light running after Dec. 16, said Lt. Robert J. Christie, who supervises the township's traffic bureau. 

"It is our sincere hope that the statewide data supports re-activation of the program," he said. "In my 25 years as a Police Officer, I have never seen such a single positive impact in changing driver behavior."

The cameras most vocal critic, Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon, R-Monmouth, led a team of traffic engineering experts to prove that yellow light times at specific camera intersections were too short for the speed at which the traffic was traveling. O'Scanlon proposed legislation to add one second of yellow light time at camera intersections.

Steve Carrellas, government policy director of the National Motorists Association, faulted the state Department of Transportation's method of administering the program. Additional problems resulted from the "greed and arrogance of many of the participating towns and the two camera companies" towns contracted with, he said. 

Schapiro said the DOT doesn't own operate or maintain the camera equipment and that its job was to implement the law to start the pilot program

"That is what we did. People are looking for someone to blame. The departments' job is to compile the data and report the findings," he said. "There have been questions raised about government intrusiveness, yet some are now saying there weren't enough regulations." 

The program suffered other high profile set backs in addition to the June 2012 suspension.

In December 2012, one contractor, Automated Traffic Solutions, had to refund a total of $4.2 million to 500,000 drivers who received tickets at 18 red light camera controlled intersections where yellow light times had not been certified. Drivers received an average $6 check after attorney's fees and costs.

In February 2014, Brick Mayor John Ducey shut down three cameras by not renewing the township's contract with Automated Traffic Systems. He citing an increase in crashes at the three camera controlled intersection as the reason.

In August 2014, the state Judiciary instructed towns to throw out 17,000 camera-generated tickets because a camera company failed to send out summonses to drivers by a 90-day deadline for doing so.

Can the program be saved?

Supporters say analysis of the data will lead the DOT to recommend to the legislature that the program should be continued, but opponents said too much damage has been done.

"Tighter regulation and running a fair system may have resulted in less profits during the pilot program, but the chances would have been better for allowing some form of camera use following the pilot," Carrellas said.

If it is continued, Carrellas said it should only be done if high resolution cameras can be used to identify who is driving the vehicle. Now, the vehicle owner is cited and the law puts the obligation on them to prove they weren't driving or the vehicle was used without their consent.

"If the picture is not clear, no ticket, never mind conviction," he said.

Short is pessimistic about the program's future because public confidence in it has been undermined.

"Nothing can fix the red-light camera program because they are effective only for raising revenue," he said. "What other highway safety device causes more accidents?"

Linden Councilman Peter A. Brown Jr. said towns, not the state should have the final say whether cameras stay or go. Brown suggested other towns do what Linden has done and use summons revenue to fund traffic safety improvements.

A bill introduced by four Essex County lawmakers would repeal the existing camera program and require towns to use 50 percent of the revenue they collect for traffic safety purposes. The bill also would make cameras permanent. A companion bill has been introduced in the state senate.

Assembly Transportation Committee chairman John Wisniewski, who supports cameras, said approval of a bill isn't likely to happen. 

But if one did get to the governor's desk, Gov. Chris Christie said in August that he was leaning against continuing the program.

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