Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Accidents Up Despite Spokane Red Light Cameras

Intersections where Spokane, Wash., installed red light cameras in 2008 in the name of safety saw an increase in crashes and injuries in the first year of the controversial program.

There were 38 collisions at the three intersections the year after the city began fining violators caught on tape. That's up from 32 the previous year, according to police collision reports provided to The Spokesman-Review.

Injury accidents at the intersections also rose from 11 the year before to 14 after.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner called the data '"interesting,'" but cautioned that it's too early to make a final judgment on camera enforcement.

""The program has been effective in that we seem to have caught a lot of people running red lights,'" Verner said. '"If we're not seeing a decline of injury collisions, then we need to figure out why not.'"

The numbers contrast with predictions made when the camera program was approved -- that collisions and injuries would decline because drivers would be less willing to run red lights. In the first year of the program the number of crashes at the intersections that police blamed on running red lights held steady at 11.

Traffic safety experts caution that crash statistics fluctuate every year and that it's difficult to prove cause and effect with only a year's worth of data. Police say they're confident that crash numbers will fall as the public becomes more aware of the cameras.

"Typically, there might be a slight increase (in the first year)," said Officer Teresa Fuller, who examines camera violations before tickets are issued. "But those go down in the second year of the program."

The city began fining red light violators caught on camera Nov. 1, 2008. Fuller said the department expects to complete its examination of the program's first year later this month. The department also plans to expand the program to four other intersections later this year.
Councilman Bob Apple, who was the lone vote against the creation of rules to allow the program, said he's not surprised by the numbers.

"I would like to see the council dump Photo Red," Apple said. But in a year in which the city faces a $10 million deficit, "a lot of things are going to trump Photo Red."

While it may be too early to judge the effectiveness of the cameras in Spokane, they have succeeded in catching violators and raising revenue.

Spokane issued 5,690 camera tickets that resulted in revenue of $419,000, Fuller said. After the contracted camera company, Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions, is paid and other expenses subtracted, police estimate a profit of $103,000.

The Spokane City Council stipulated that camera fines be used only for traffic safety projects. Council members argued that doing so ensured that the aim of the program would remain traffic safety and that the city would not become dependent on the fines to balance the city budget.

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