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Run a red light in Lacey, get caught on camera

LACEY - Two intersections in this city will become the first locations in Thurston County where cameras will document motorists who run red lights. Olympia and Tumwater might not be far behind.

A Lacey City Council committee has authorized Police Chief Dusty Pierpoint to start the enforcement program. Pierpoint said he'd like the program up and running by July with cameras monitoring two intersections - likely ­Sleater-Kinney Road and Pacific Avenue, and Martin Way and Marvin Road.

Officials for the two neighboring cities said they're looking into the systems.

The cameras are another tool to prevent broadside, or T-bone, collisions, which can cause serious injury and death, the police chief said.

"Success will be a reduction in violations," he said. "We don't want to see it sustained at a high level or go up. We want to see a reduction. That will be our barometer of success."

The Federal Highway Administration estimates crashes caused by red-light running results in 1,000 deaths and 90,000 injuries a year.

Just how effective the cameras have been in other cities to reduce those numbers is a source of debate.

Supporters say the cameras do reduce the number of collisions caused by red-light running. Critics counter the devices serve as a revenue stream for cities and insurance companies, which can jack up the premiums of red-light scofflaws caught on film.

Various studies haven't settled the debate.

Last month, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety - which describes itself as an independent, nonprofit organization funded by auto insurers - released a study that found cameras were more effective at reducing red-light running than longer yellow lights, another common preventive method.

The study was conducted at two intersections in Philadelphia with high crash rates. Researchers gathered data on red-light violations before and after the "yellow time" was extended and again after cameras had operated for about a year.

The study found extending the yellow time reduced violations by 36 percent, while the cameras reduced the remaining violations by 96 percent.

"Violations virtually disappeared at the six approaches to the two intersections we studied," said Richard Retting, the institute's senior transportation engineer and the study's lead author, in a press release. "This decrease in violations is all the more remarkable because the intersections were such high-crash locations."

Another study, cited by critics of the cameras, was far more cautious about the cameras' effectiveness.

The 2005 study by the Virginia Transportation Research Council concluded the cameras operating in that state "potentially improve safety." While the number of collisions attributed to red-light running decreased, it said, the number of rear-end crashes has increased.

"These two findings are consistent with those in the majority of the literature surveyed," it said.

But the study leaves unresolved which injury crashes are more severe: the ones caused by running red lights or those caused by use of the cameras.

Pierpoint acknowledged the potential exists for an increase in rear-end collisions at monitored intersections as motorists slam on the brakes to avoid a citation. But he added that injuries are more severe in T-bone crashes than rear-end collisions.

"It's not a given it will happen, but it has happened in some jurisdictions," he said.

Other Thurston County cities have expressed an interest in the cameras.

In Tumwater, the City Council's Public Safety Committee will learn more about the cameras during a meeting scheduled later this month.

"They have not made any decisions yet," City Administrator Doug Baker said, "but they are exploring that possibility."

Olympia City Manager Steve Hall has asked the police department to gather information on the cameras for a presentation to a City Council committee.

Don Heinze, the police sergeant in charge of the department's traffic bureau, characterized the examination as being in its "infancy."

"We are really in a fact-finding phase in this whole thing to determine if it will benefit Olympia drivers or not," he said.

Pierpoint said he's received feedback from residents who oppose and support the use of cameras at intersections.

"Most feedback I've gotten is positive," he said. "When someone runs a red light, it angers people."

Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or at chill@theolympian.com. Red-light cameras

In 2005, state lawmakers authorized cities to use camera systems to ticket motorists who run red lights.

Under the law, the camera can only capture pictures of the vehicle and license plate, not the driver or passengers, apparently out of privacy concerns. The camera takes pictures when a vehicle enters the intersection after a traffic signal turns red.

A ticket must be mailed to the registered owner within two weeks. A police officer must review the citation and could dismiss it if there was a legitimate reason for the violation: to make way for an emergency vehicle or due to another traffic situation, for instance, Lacey Police Chief Dusty Pierpoint said.

"There is that human decision," he said. "It's not all done by machines, if you will."

n Some vendors who install and maintain the systems have the ability to put video clips on the Internet so those cited can enter a password and watch a replay of the violation.

n Intersections that use cameras must be clearly identified with signs.

n The registered owner is responsible for paying the fine, likely $101. The fine can be waived for the registered owner if he or she can prove to a court that the vehicle was being driven by someone else or had been stolen at the time of the violation.

The city would pay the vendor who installs and maintains the camera using a portion of the fines. As a result, the city would need to install cameras at intersections with a high number of violations to cover the cost.

n In late 2005, a vendor temporarily installed the cameras at no charge at several intersections around the city. Officials made the request to determine the severity of the problem, and no citations were issued.

The cameras monitored the intersection of Sleater-Kinney Road and Pacific Avenue for a total of 88 hours in November and December 2005 and caught 142 violations, according to an analysis. Westbound motorists on Pacific Avenue ran red lights 56 times during that time, an average of 2.6 times an hour, it said.

Lacey Police Chief Dusty Pierpoint said his officers have also seen more collisions at the intersection of Marvin Road and Martin Way due to the additional traffic generated by all the new commercial development.

The data needs to be updated before the city makes a final decision on where to place the cameras, the police chief said. The City Council must approve the contract for a vendor and adopt an ordinance that authorizes use of cameras to monitor intersections.

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