Red-light cameras catching thousands of drivers
Hey, you. Yeah, you. Did you just run that red light? If you did, keep a close eye on your mailbox. You could soon join the ranks of drivers...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Yeah, you. Did you just run that red light?
If you did, keep a close eye on your mailbox. You could soon join the ranks of drivers in Seattle who've been caught on camera and made to pay.
Since July, 5,500 citations have been mailed to drivers after traffic-light cameras at four intersections snapped their photos. The fine is $101, and police say the one-year pilot program appears to be working just as it's supposed to: catching scofflaws while allowing police officers to spend their time preventing other offenses.
Most of the 5,500 citations probably would never have been written without the camera program, said Michael Quinn, strategic adviser and project manager for the Seattle Police Department.
"We can't have an officer posted at each intersection," he said. "This way, we're ranging 60 to 80 violations per camera per week."
The cameras work like this: As a traffic light is about to turn red, a computer predicts whether a vehicle is unlikely to stop — based on speed at a certain distance from the stop line — and the video camera begins recording. The still camera takes a photo at the moment the vehicle is at the stop line and another when the vehicle is in the intersection.
The city has six cameras at four high-use intersections. Four of the cameras began working in July; the other two started in October.
Officials say the cameras should snap photos only when a light turns red. And not all photos lead to tickets, they say.
The photographs and video are vetted by the equipment's vendor, American Traffic Solutions of Scottsdale, Ariz. Any "false triggers" — for example, if the driver makes a sudden, last-minute complete stop — are removed. The company then crops and zooms the still photos to create a license plate close-up and obtains registered-owner information for the license plate.
The video and photos are then sent to one of two specially trained Seattle Police Department officers, who review them and decide whether to issue a citation, using the same standards as in a live traffic stop, said Jerry Stein, manager of magistrate operations at Seattle Municipal Court.
Signs warn drivers about the cameras, and the violations do not go on driving records like speeding tickets or regular red-light tickets, Quinn said. State law requires that tickets issued based on red-light camera images be treated as nonmoving infractions.
In addition to a paper ticket and hard copies of the photos, drivers are given an online link with a unique event number where they can see the photos and the video that led to their citation.
Some of the citations have been challenged by drivers — 14 percent of citations issued in August and 10 percent of those in September. But Stein said the challenge rate is lower than regular traffic violations, probably because with the cameras, drivers have proof of their misdeed.
According to a study last year by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), 35 cities around the country were using the red-light cameras.
In many places, the approach has been controversial, sparking citizen concerns for privacy, doubts about whether the cameras are accurate and, in some cases, lawsuits over citations.
The National Motorists Association, a 6,000-member organization, has spoken out against the systems, citing studies it says have shown the cameras cause rear-end collisions because drivers are so panicked to stop at a yellow light that they surprise drivers close behind them.
Opponents also argue that because the registered owner of the vehicle — not necessarily the driver — receives the ticket, it's unfair. Cities are only interested in the income the tickets bring in, not in fairness to drivers, said Jim Baxter, National Motorists Association president.
"Once they start generating money, the government is loath to correct the problems with the cameras," he said.
There is also widespread public support for the systems, which are supposed to help curb red-light running, which causes more than 100,000 crashes and about 1,000 deaths a year in the United States, according to the FHWA.
According to the FHWA study, which looked at camera systems at 132 intersections in seven jurisdictions, the cameras resulted in a 25 percent decrease in total right-angle crashes and a 16 percent decrease of injury right-angle crashes, but a 15 percent increase in total rear-end crashes and a 24 percent increase in injury rear-end crashes.
The study also found that red-light camera systems do provide a modest crash-cost benefit overall, saving $39,000 to $50,000 annually in hospital bills, property damage, insurance expenses and other costs for each intersection.
In Seattle, 90 percent of the income generated by tickets goes to the city's general fund, and 10 percent goes to parks.
Here, if the registered owner of the car receives a ticket but was not driving when the offense took place, he or she can sign a declaration — either naming or not naming the actual driver — and will not have to pay the ticket, Stein said. Figures for how many drivers exercised this option were not available.
The $460,000 program will be evaluated beginning in the spring, when police will look at whether it has addressed its main goal: reducing red-light running and overall accidents, Quinn said.
Early next summer, Mayor Greg Nickels and the Seattle City Council will decide whether it should be renewed and possibly expanded, Quinn said.
Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or email@example.com
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.