OLYMPIA – City Manager Steve Hall wants the city to install cameras to catch drivers who run red lights and speed through school zones, as Lacey has done.
But his proposal has run into opposition from most of the City Council’s General Government Committee – who are concerned the cameras create a climate of fear, are motivated by profit, don’t reduce accidents and might allow insurance companies to increase rates for no cause.
The issue is on hold while Hall studies it further. The full City Council would have to approve the measure.
More than 160 cities nationwide use the cameras, according to a city staff report, including Lacey. The cameras take pictures of violators, who are mailed citations. The cameras are supposed to provide a deterrent to running stoplights.
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Three intersections could get the red-light cameras – Black Lake Boulevard/Cooper Point Road, Martin Way/Sleater-Kinney Road, and Fones Road/Pacific Avenue, according to a city staff report. The report doesn’t say where the school-zone cameras could go.
Lt. Chris Ward of the Lacey police told the committee its set of cameras, installed nearly a year ago at Sleater-Kinney Road and Pacific Avenue, has reduced accidents. In 2007 there were 10 recorded injury collisions. In 2008, that dropped to four. That’s after nine months of enforcement. Violators get a $124 fine in the mail.
“We’re writing less tickets,” Ward said. “We’re having less collisions. What it shows is that the actual dangerous behavior of running red lights is being curbed. People are starting to get it, and we’re very happy.”
The cameras are activated when the light turns red and records the license plate of any vehicle in the intersection, a city staff report says. The photos from the cameras are then sent to the vendor’s offices, then forwarded to the police department over a secure Internet connection.
School-zone cameras are synchronized to a radar device to determine whether people are speeding.
It’s up to police to screen the videos to determine if there has been a violation. Once police have authorized the violations, the vendor prepares and mails the citations.
The three committee members are divided. Councilman Craig Ottavelli came out strongly against the cameras, Councilwoman Rhenda Strub had serious concerns and Councilman Jeff Kingsbury supported them.
“I just think … unless there is a profound, positive, verifiable increase in safety that this is something that is just wrong for our community,” Ottavelli said in an interview.
He cited a number of studies that he said showed the cameras not only don’t work, they increase accidents.
“Comprehensive studies conclude cameras actually increase crashes and injuries, providing a safety argument not to install them,” said a 2008 University of South Florida report. It says later that “public policy should avoid conflicts of interest that enhance revenues for government and private interests at the risk of public safety.”
A 2005 study from the Virginia Department of Transportation found cameras increased total crashes from 8 percent to 17 percent. The studies are excerpted at thenewspaper.com.
Ottavelli noted that other studies support the cameras, but tend to be sponsored by the insurance industry, which he suggests has an ulterior motive.
Evaluations from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed “camera enforcement reduced red light-running violations by about 40 percent” in Fairfax, Va., and Oxnard, Calif. It also says cameras “have been shown to reduce intersection crashes.” Addressing a criticism that the cameras increase rear-end collisions, it says those are less severe than the collisions the system prevents, so it’s a net benefit.
But Ottavelli said other options can increase safety, such as lengthening yellow and red light times and other intersection improvements such as turn lanes.
He also says the cameras produce anxiety. “I don’t want to be known as a police community,” he said.
Strub was concerned that the red-light videos would be a public document that insurance companies could obtain and use to increase customers’ insurance rates without due process.
Strub was also concerned about the profit motive of the cameras. Private vendors typically install and maintain the cameras under a lease with cities, and share revenue from traffic fines with them. At $124 a fine, a minimum of 1.2 violations per day are necessary for the vendor to be compensated.
Strub asked Hall whether the city could run the program itself. He said he didn’t know.
But Kingsbury said he has “none of those concerns.”
The issue hits home, because he watched a pedestrian die at Fourth Avenue and Chestnut Street after being hit by a car. He suggested putting up cameras at a single intersection as a pilot project.
The cameras are needed to slow people down, he said. That’s especially because new countdown timers that tell people how long before the light turns red gives people plenty of warning not to run a red.
“If they still run through the red light, they’re either not paying attention or they’re a scofflaw,” he said.
Matt Batcheldor, 360-704-6869
Staff writer Christian Hill contributed to this story.