A red-light camera is just the ticket for safety


May 11, 2004|By Jody K. Vilschick | Jody K. Vilschick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I'M ALWAYS amused by those who complain about red-light cameras. Inevitably, they'll confess to having received a ticket or two. Oops. If you're not a fan of red-light cameras, there's a simple way to ensure you never have to deal with one: Don't run red lights.

Simple enough.

I'm a fan of red-light cameras, and here's why: They are saving lives. According to a recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Oxnard, Calif., "injury crashes" at intersections where the cameras were introduced in 1997 were reduced by 29 percent. Wow.

Front-into-side collisions - the type of accident most closely associated with running red lights - were reduced 32 percent overall, and front-into-side crashes involving injuries were reduced 68 percent. At the risk of sounding repetitive: Wow.

An interesting side effect of having some intersections equipped with red-light cameras is that crashes decline at intersections with and without cameras. Crashes declined throughout Oxnard, even though only 11 of the city's 125 intersections with traffic signals are equipped with cameras. Previous studies of red-light-running violations in Oxnard and elsewhere found similar spillover effects. That is, the violations dropped in about the same proportions at intersections with and without cameras, attesting to the strong deterrent value of red-light cameras and their ability to alter driving behavior.

The cameras, which are being used to enforce traffic laws in more than 90 communities and towns in 15 states and the District of Columbia, photograph vehicles that run red lights. Violators are ticketed by mail.

"Red-light cameras provide the certainty of enforcement, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said the institute's senior transportation engineer, Richard Retting. "This has changed the way drivers behave with regard to red-light running, and now we can document how this behavior change is reducing crashes and injuries. With the well-publicized use of camera enforcement, communities can make signalized intersections much safer."

There is room for abuses of red-light cameras, and economic concerns (red-light cameras as municipal fund-raisers) are usually among the most frequently voiced complaints. Thanks to action by the General Assembly, however, Maryland motorists encountering red-light cameras need not be concerned that local governments are short-timing the yellow lights to gain more ticket revenue.

On March 30, the Joint Committee on Administration, Executive and Legislative Review voted to approve regulations to require uniform timing standards. Although the state regulations have no enforcement authority or mechanism, judges would have a consistent standard by which to throw out citations that note amber times at less than 3 seconds. Short-timing lights is not done in Howard County, said Diane Schwarzman, engineering specialist for the Howard County Department of Public Works, Traffic Division. "Approaches currently monitored by [county-maintained] red-light cameras have yellow change intervals of 4.0 seconds or 4.5 seconds," she said.

"Maryland is finally addressing an easily manipulated flaw in the application of red-light-camera technology - amber (or yellow-light) times," said John White, AAA Mid-Atlantic's manager of public and government relations. "AAA has always supported the use of technology to make our intersections safer, but red-light cameras should not become revenue-generating tools in a game that is played differently across the state. Motorists should know what to expect."

New regulations establish time intervals for the display of yellow signals at intersections monitored by a traffic control monitoring system (red-light camera) that are consistent with guidelines established by the Federal Highway Administration.

"Clearly, the shorter the yellow, the more violations you have and the more money you make. Shorter yellows don't improve safety, just profits," White said.

And in Howard County, at least, contractors aren't getting paid by how many tickets are issued. I'm sure that'll make lots of folks feel better as they write out checks in response to tickets they receive. "The county currently leases our cameras from a company called Laser Craft," said Sherry Lewellyn, spokeswoman for the Howard County Police Department.

She said the county pays the company two fees: one to lease the equipment - a flat fee of $2,245 every month - and another for data processing. The data processing fee is based on how many cameras are being operated.

Road repair

Road repair is in full swing now that the weather is consistently warm. Through the end of this week, look for possible daytime lane closures for bridge deck repair on Interstate 70 eastbound at Exit 76 over Route 97.

Through the end of this week, look for possible nighttime lane closures on Interstate 95 north leading up to River Road for milling and paving and at Exit 38 over Route 32 for bridge deck repair.

What's your traffic trauma? Contact Jody K. Vilschick at elison@us.net, send faxes to 410-715-2816 or mail letters to Traffic Talk, The Sun in Howard County, 30 Corporate Center, 10440 Little Patuxent Parkway, Suite 820, Columbia, 21044. Please include your full name and contact information or your comments will not be published or receive a response.

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