Saturday, June 17, 2006

Smile! You Could Be on A Red Light Camera

By Lynndi Lockenour

In the future a traffic ticket could be on its way to a mailbox near you. Chief of Police, Tim Swope presented the idea of placing cameras at specific red lights throughout the city to the City Council at a recent meeting. Swope said he’s seen the positive effect the cameras have had in other cities like Chicago. “If it’s good enough for Chicago, I think it’s good enough for St. Charles,” he said.

A private company, who specializes in this type of camera placement would monitor the intersections separately and then relay their findings back to the Police Department. Based on the results, those intersections experiencing the highest number of red light violations would then be chosen to receive cameras.

One company who produces these types of cameras is RedFlex Traffic Systems Incorporated. Located in Scottsdale, Arizona, the company installs the cameras and is also responsible for ticketing. A portion of all ticket money received goes directly back to the company and the rest to the city of St. Charles. “The money is not the important thing,” Swope said. “What is important is that we save lives.”

Jay Heiler, Director of Government Affairs for RedFlex Traffic Systems said the company receives a percentage of ticket money collected. “Some cities pay us a flat fee,” he said. “But the majority prefer to have a portion of each ticket sent to us.” Taking a portion from each ticket, he said, insures that the city isn’t wasting money on installing the system. “This way the violators are the ones paying for the camera system,” he said.
Heiler said the system works using sensors placed in the road, along with the visible cameras. “When a vehicle travels over the censor at a speed needed to cross the intersection, the camera is then triggered to take a photo,” he said. The camera records 6 seconds of video before the violation and 6 seconds of video afterward. The footage is then reviewed by RedFlex Traffic Systems, who then issue the tickets.

RedFlex Traffic Systems has operations in approximately 10 states throughout the country, encompassing 87 different cities. The company offers violators the opportunity to view the footage of their red light offense via Internet. Chief Swope said this type of playback technology is helpful in getting offenders to comply with the new cameras. “If they can see themselves committing the offense, hopefully they will slow down and be more aware next time,” he said.

Still an undecided issue between the City Council, Police Department and the traffic committee, no one company has been chosen yet. Still Chief Swope said he’s seen the benefits the residents of Scottsdale, Arizona have experienced as a result of the cameras RedFlex Traffic Systems installed. Swope said he thinks it would be a great investment for St. Charles.

City Council President, Roy Riddler said he supports the installation of such cameras. He himself has been involved in two accidents that were a result of red light violations. “It happens all the time where you’ll be sitting there and the light turns green, but at the last minute someone comes flying through the intersection,” he said. “This new technology would put a stop to it.”

Riddler argues that many people can recall a time where someone committed a traffic violation and wondered to themselves,‘Where are the police right now to catch this person?’ He said the cameras are a way to help with the problem of officers not being able to be there all the time. “This would be an adjunct to the police force, not a substitute,” he said. “In my eyes it is similar to placing computers in the squad cars; it allows the officers to do their jobs more effectively.”

While some councilmen approve the use of cameras at stoplights, others do not. Councilman Mark Brown said he opposes the cameras because they are essentially only being used to generate revenue for the city. “This private company, whoever the city decides to hire, will become a type of unwarranted law enforcement that we don’t want,” he said. “Our job is to make the roads safer and I don’t see how these cameras will accomplish that.”

Brown said his biggest problem with the cameras is that they eliminate the discretion police officers would have if they were involved. “Say the person behind someone who runs the light is being an aggressive driver and the person running the light does so to avoid getting hit,” he said. “These cameras won’t have diplomacy on deciding whether or not to give tickets.” He said this margin of error would lead to inconvenience more than anything and is not worth the effort. “These companies lobby our city officials, winning them and dining them, to make a sale,” he said. “It’s not really about safety at all.

Instead, Brown proposes that intersections experiencing trouble step up police patrols. He argues that it is the visibility of the patrol car that gets people to slow down, not a camera. “Someone who is driving aggressively does so for a long period of time,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if he passes 15 cameras, that won’t slow him down as quickly, or in the same way, as an officer pulling him over would.”

But Swope argues that additional patrolling is not the answer. “Some of the intersections being considered are so busy with traffic that having a patrol car run across four lanes of traffic to pull someone over is just not possible,” he said. “We would be endangering the lives of everyone at that intersection.”

Swope said he wasn’t sold on the idea until he saw the results in other communities like Scottsdale where RedFlex Traffic Systems has some of its cameras installed. “It is a wonderful endeavor for this community to consider,” he said. The potential for injuries is much higher at red lights, and often one of the biggest complaints Swope said he hears from constituents involve people running red lights.

However, with any new technology, also comes doubt. One of the biggest fears Chief Swope said he’s heard is from people who say the camera technology might be abused, used as a means to ticket those who proceeded through the light after it turns yellow. He assures that this is not the case and the only those who blatantly run the light will receive tickets.

Last year there were 151 reported accidents that were the result of red-light violations, many of those injury accidents. Swope assures the cameras are not there to trick anyone, noting the intersections containing cameras would be clearly marked and posted with signs warning drivers they are under camera surveillance. “One everyone understands that the cameras are there,” he said. “I think we will see considerably smaller amount of accidents as a result of someone running a red light.”

Heiler, of RedFlex Traffic Systems, assures that all their systems include a cautionary period where violators receive warnings instead of actual tickets. “We want to give people time to get use to that type of supervision,” he said. Usually the probationary period lasts 30 days after instillation.

As with any other traffic ticket, Heiler assures violators are free to contest the offense. “If they view the footage and think they didn’t do anything wrong, they can always contest,” he said. “In that manner, these tickets are no different from anything else.”

Several locations are being considered for camera observation. Included among these are the intersections of Fifth Street and Riverbluff Drive as well as the intersection of Veterans Memorial Parkway and Zumbehl. Swope said he expects there might be surprises after the intersections are analyzed. “We may find some that aren’t as bad as we thought,” he said. “We might also find intersections we didn’t even consider as being dangerous that could benefit from a camera.”

Despite this, Brown fears the instillation of cameras would eventually lead to a cut in the number of police officers patrolling the streets. He said when the cameras begin generating revenue, they will need fewer officers, and the overall number of officers might decline.

Privacy is also an issue for Brown when considering having the cameras installed. “You start by putting cameras on a few stoplights, then people say ‘oh if we had a camera on this or that park we could stop robberies and vandalism,’” he said. “Before long, they are everywhere and we are back to the old days of Russia.”

But Swope argues being filmed is part of everyday life today, saying that anytime someone visits a store, they are being watched for security reasons. “People don’t have anything to worry about,” he said. “We aren’t watching everyone, just the ones who are breaking the law.”