One of the foremost advocates of traffic safety has withdrawn support for the District of Columbia's traffic camera enforcement program after city officials conceded revenue was a primary motivation. The Automobile Association of America (AAA), which supports the use of traffic cameras to enhance road safety, has rebuffed the city's plan to expand the program to earn more revenue. The Metropolitan Police Department collected $18,368,436 in fines through August 2002 with the automated red-light enforcement program, which was implemented in August 1999 to combat "the serious problem of red-light running."
"There is a mixed message being sent here. When using these cameras you should not have a vested interest in catching one person running a red light or speeding," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. Mr. Anderson said that AAA brought attention to a camera that the automobile association deemed unfair on H Street Northeast adjacent to the Union Station garage exit. The camera was affixed at a location on a declining hill with a flashing yellow light that went to red without changing to a solid yellow. "Drivers didn't even know they were running a light. That camera issued 20,000 tickets before we caught it," Mr. Anderson said. He said the camera also caused its share of rear-end collisions, as opponents have contended since the first few months after the program began. "At the H Street camera, we noticed several near rear-end collisions" Mr. Anderson said. "There have been studies that show that red-light cameras can cause an increase of rear-end accidents, but there aren't any hard numbers yet."
He said he became furious when he read reports in The Washington Times a week ago quoting D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams as saying that the cameras were about "money and safety." The mayor is also reported to have said that the city was looking to expand the program, in part, to earn revenue to offset a projected $323 million budget deficit. Mr. Anderson said the mayor's comments made it appear as if the city had a dual policy on cameras and that they undercut the credibility of Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey's automated red-light enforcement program. "That is what happens when you're putting [on] pressure for numbers," he [Anderson] said. Until recently, both Mr. Williams and Chief Ramsey have said that the No. 1 goal of the cameras is to make the streets safer for motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists by targeting red-light violations and speed infractions.
The city also may be heading for a court fight, said Richard Diamond, spokesman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, a strong opponent of the cameras. A number of cases against the cameras have been filed in D.C. Superior Court, but "when the courts get a hint that the case is trying to attack the system it is immediately dismissed," the spokesman said. A recent report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed that red-light running in the District had dropped 64 percent since the cameras were set up. But Mr. Diamond and Mr. Anderson said that the report says nothing about the increased number of rear-end collisions that may have been caused by the cameras. Richard Retting, the insurance institute's senior transportation engineer, said such collision increases were not studied for the report but may be included in studies later. Mr. Anderson and Mr. Diamond said that drivers approaching red-light cameras are so afraid of being flashed that they slam on their brakes well short of intersections, surprising tailing motorists and causing accidents.
Mr. Diamond cited the camera problems last year in San Diego. A judge threw out almost 292 traffic tickets issued by automated red-light cameras last year, ruling that the city had given away too much police power to the private company running the devices. "The only reason we found out about the accident increases in San Diego is because the courts forced them to release all of the data," he said. It also was discovered that the city's vendor, Lockheed Martin IMS, placed some of the cameras too close to the intersection and reduced the yellow-light time. San Diego Police Chief David Bejarano later said that more accidents were reported at some camera intersections than prior to the red-light photo enforcement. And at some intersections there was no change in accident totals. All of the information on the cameras' lack of effectiveness came after the courts forced the police department to release all the data. "This is the only case where we have the full data and the cameras didn't work," Mr. Diamond said.
The Los Angeles Times reported last November that accidents also were up at red-light camera intersections in that city. It was also reported that accidents were up as much as 11 percent citywide.
(Written by Brian DeBose and published in the 17 October 2002 edition of The Washington Times.
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