Many drivers have wondered why they received a traffic light ticket in the mail for $124. Effective June 2008; red light violations have been captured by cameras at selected intersections. By state law, infractions captured through the use of automated safety cameras are not reported to the Department of Licensing and do not become part of the driver’s record. If an infraction is issued and the driver fails to respond or pay the ticket, the account may be transferred to a collection agency.
Sergeant Bob Thompson of the Puyallup Police Department explained the purpose of the traffic safety cameras, “To reduce the number of injuries and collisions at intersections, address citizens’ complaints for red runners, and what officers were telling us about those that were running red lights. We surveyed intersections and a vendor surveyed 15 different approaches to an intersection with 4 approaches (as each direction is an approach at that intersection). We had them survey 15 and settled on 8 approaches, and felt that would make an impact on people’s driving behavior. We aren’t gonna allow red runners anymore; as we can’t be at all intersections at one time as there are only 5 officers to cover a city of 45,000 people and 70,000 people during the day.
There has been a 60 to 70% red light running reduction overall and 43% from the time we put them in until last year, 2011 the number of reported injury crashes are down. We are trying to get away from people reporting injuries at all if someone gets in a wreck, we don’t want them to have an injury. You can find people that love red light cameras and those that hate them. If you don’t want a ticket you won’t get one if you don’t run the light. There have been 184 reported injury collisions from 2007 to 2008, now down to 147 injury collisions throughout the whole city.”
Sergeant Thompson stated: “I’m a firm believer in them; if you don’t want a ticket, don’t run a red light. It isn’t big brother. It’s different than getting a speeding ticket as it doesn’t affect insurance rates, you just pay the fine. It does a good job for us and hopefully helps in our overall traffic safety education program. I believe in the cameras as they do what they’re supposed to do. I’ve been the project manager since we put it together 6 years ago and have answered every complaint. I’ve listened to everybody and their uncle about how they are good, bad, and indifferent. It doesn’t change my view. I think they are an effective enforcement tool for our traffic safety program’s police department.”
According to Sergeant Thompson, there have been 17,000 violations in 2008, when the first cameras were installed, compared to 11,000 in 2011. Sergeant Thompson explained that as a police officer, when he gives ticket for a person that’s speeding, he wants to change their behavior. Sergeant Thompson stated: “That’s what we do traffic wise to change their behavior get them to think twice before going 15 miles over the speed limit, running a red light, or not yielding to a pedestrian in a crosswalk.”
When asked if there were plans to implement more traffic cameras, Sergeant Thompson replied, “We currently have a survey at intersections. We’re looking at collisions at intersections or listening to citizen’s complaints to try and develop a strategy that involves the community. People hate that people run red lights. We asked a vendor to do a survey poll of a camera for 8 hours to monitor for whatever direction and they find out the number of violations and whether it is prudent for us to enter a contract and put a red light camera. It has to make a certain amount of money; we have a cost neutral clause in our contract and we’re not gonna do one for two violations in a day. We’re looking for high volume, high number of crashes, and high number of complaint areas to change people’s behavior. We don’t pay anything up front they install everything up front, the hardware and software for the cameras. Most cost $3,750 a month and most intersections are at the maximum for their violations. There has to be enough violations to get to that. We want to see driver behavior change; not 1 or 2 violations in a day. We want the most impact we can.”
Sergeant Thompson also discussed how the traffic cameras were used in investigations and collisions (for example, if person A hit person B in a motor vehicle accident with no witness). Sergeant Thompson commented: “We’ve used them for bank robberies. We get the video and can’t really zoom in on anything such as your face, just the rear end of the vehicle. There is no way to zoom in the car as it is not allowed even in a criminal investigation. Even the video can’t zoom in on the license plate. We can only use the cameras for investigations such as tracking where someone’s been and in a collision investigation, that’s been a big deal.”
Many drivers may wonder what happens to the money they pay for these tickets, according to Sergeant Thompson, the money goes into a general fund. For example, if the company collects $100,000 in a month the fee is paid to an account that the vendor set up. After the Police Department gets the bill, the company takes $100,000 in fees that gets sent as a check and the city pays the bill for the services of those cameras. The rest goes to the general fund with the city.
When asked about the issue of California stops, Sergeant Bob Thompson replied, “Well this is Washington and you need to come to a complete stop. California stops may play a small role, but a majority are people that whip around the corner or just continue on through the intersection and make no real movement to stop even if they’re traveling 10 miles per hour.
This isn’t about making revenue, but being fair to people. If you don’t stop at a red light, you’re gonna get a ticket. If you don’t make an attempt to make a complete stop, you’re getting a ticket.”
Sergeant Thompson explained in further detail about traffic camera approaches at an intersection: “It’s $3,750 per approach and for 4 approaches, that equals $15,000 a month. The city doesn’t pay that, it’s not a budget item, it’s paid for by violators.”
Sergeant Thompson also wanted to clear up any myths about the traffic cameras, “One of the myths is if you have so many violations, there will be more money required and it’ll just be a flat rate per month. This is not the case, if the camera intersection doesn’t meet it, then we wouldn’t have to pay for the camera.
Another misconception is that people think that the computer spits them out and mails them to people. When there’s a violation, it goes through a process: the computer captures it here and it is sent via the internet to our vendor in Arizona to make sure the image is cropped right and that it’s definitely a violation. They send to us via a queue, which is sent through a separate computer network so that the download speed is faster. A lady goes through them and makes sure it’s a violation and then it goes back to vendor, and then the vendor sends the ticket out. If she rejects it, then comes to me since I look at rejections. It’s a checks and balances system, so that for example, if you didn’t want someone to get a ticket. It’s pretty apparent by watching the video, whether they stopped or did not stop.”
Driving slow will not affect the lights. The yellow light time at traffic lights are not sped up which is another myth believed by some drivers.
What about those that are stuck in an intersection when the light changes and they are making a left hand turn? It is a violation because a driver should not enter an intersection without being able to proceed safely and to not block an intersection. Sergeant Thompson explained, “When somebody does that, it requests collisions as another driver notices that the person is stopped. You should not enter an intersection without being able to safely proceed through it.”
What about increased yellow light time? Sergeant Thompson explained that when discussing with traffic engineers, even if the yellow light time was increased, it may reduce red light runners in the beginning, but the pattern will not change overall. Sergeant Thompson commented: “We (the traffic engineers and traffic technicians) want to make it uniform in every city (the light times).”
When asked about details about cameras at more locations, Sergeant Thompson explained that there were no intersections identified and the chief’s decision to move forward and present to the city council will not be until the contract can be extended for the program (which was tailored to take place on the 15th of this month).
It was interesting to find that the traffic cameras are more lenient than a police officer. The traffic camera will cite a driver with a violation if they make no attempts to come to a complete stop at a traffic light (even if the vehicle’s stopped past the line in the intersection) whereas, a police officer can stop a driver for stopping passed the stop line in an intersection.
Sergeant Thompson concluded, “The overall purpose of the program is to get people to stop. If the light turns red when you’re in the intersection, the camera won’t give you a ticket, whereas a cop could give you a ticket. The computer only senses when you’re behind the stop line.”
By: Carly Calabrese, staff for Tacoma.com