Athens-Clarke County in Georgia has raked in more than $1 million in three years from a camera enforcement system that nabs red-light runners.
Launched at one intersection in 2005 and expanded to a second intersection last year, the camera system was touted as a break-even proposition. Athens-Clarke police told county commissioners that tickets would spike early on but drop as drivers caught on and slowed down.
Although police plan for as many as 15 intersections to come under the lens one day, grand jurors who studied the camera system are concerned the government might use the system as a cash cow.
The county collected $1,035,831 since 2005 from tickets sent to motorists who whose cars and trucks were caught in photographs running red lights on Lexington Road and West Broad Street, according to annual reports that by law the police department must make to the governor’s office by Jan. 31 every year.
After subtracting operating costs, salaries and other expenses to maintain the cameras, the county had a three-year balance of $569,047 in the red-light camera program as of Feb. 1, according to the Athens-Clarke Finance Department.
“There was a concern to the effect of, is this something that’s going to be treated by the Athens-Clarke County government as a way to supplement income or is the purpose really to reduce accidents,” said Richard Seigler, a member of the Clarke County grand jury that last month recommended the county limit red light cameras to five locations, tops.
“Obviously, we don’t want cameras at every intersection in Clarke County, but there are a few others that could probably use them,” Seigler said. “There was no official study done by the grand jury to identify intersections, it was just a matter of conversation that there seemed to be a lot of wrecks at such and such intersections.”
Currently, the cameras photograph traffic heading east and west on Lexington Road at the Gaines School-Cherokee Road intersection as well as traffic going in three directions at West Broad Street and Alps Road: East and west on Broad, and north on Alps at the intersection. Those two intersections have the highest accident rate in Athens.
The camera system isn’t meant to generate revenue, but to reduce injuries, protect officers and allow police “to redirect our scarce resources to other pressing, critical problems in the county,” said police Chief Jack Lumpkin.
But if the cameras continue to be money-makers over time, that is fine with District 5 Commissioner David Lynn, who said excess revenue can let the county expand the camera system beyond the current two locations and fund other safety initiatives.with District 5 Commissioner David Lynn, who said excess revenue can let the county expand the camera system beyond the current two locations and fund other safety initiatives.
“These things typically have a spike in revenue at the beginning, then dwindle down because they accomplish what they set out to do, and they’re typically not huge revenue generators in the long haul,” Lynn said. “But if they bring in more money than what it costs to operate them, and it’s used for public safety, that’s fine with me.”
Though signs warn drivers about the cameras, the number of tickets issued continue to climb: from 1,791 in 2005 to 1,999 in 2006 and to 14,299 last year, when police added the cameras on West Broad Street and Alps Road.
Still, police say that drivers will learn over time.
“It is anticipated that as driver awareness increases, the number of violations will decrease,” Lumpkin wrote in the annual report he sent last month to Gov. Sonny Perdue. “A project of this type should be given several years to accurately assess the impact of the automated red-light enforcement system.”
The county has no immediate plans to expand the system beyond the current two intersections, Lumpkin said.
But police have candidates.
“Where (cameras) are particularly effective and efficient are the major intersections, those that have multiple lanes intersecting,” Lumpkin said. “Complex intersections such as these pose a significant safety issue.”
One example Lumpkin gave is Atlanta Highway’s intersection with Timothy and Mitchell Bridge roads, near Georgia Square Mall, the location with the third-highest number of reported collisions in 2006. Another is a couple of blocks away at Atlanta Highway and Huntington Road, an intersection that 70,000 vehicles pass through each day and had the second most highest number of crashes in 2006.
When crash data for 2005 and 2007 is compiled later this month, Lumpkin will meet with traffic engineers to discuss whether and where to add more red-light cameras, he said. The numbers for 2005 weren’t completed because the engineer changed jobs, and 2007 crash data isn’t yet compiled, Athens-Clarke Transportation and Public Works Director David Clark said.
When police and traffic officials get ready to add more cameras, funding won’t be a problem.
The county collected $217,172 in ticket fines from the Lexington Road cameras in 2005, the year the automated enforcement system first came online.
But the cameras generated more than triple that amount in 2007 – $818,659 – after a trio of cameras were installed at Broad and Alps at the beginning of the year.
Since 2005, the cameras have generated $1,035,831 in fines, but after subtracting costs, the county had a balance of $569,047 in its red-light program account as of Feb. 1.
The largest chunk from those expenses came from the $205,500 used to install camera equipment on West Broad Street intersection. Another $210,365 was used over three years for system maintenance and pay the salary of a clerk who reviews and mails citations.
The county pays the camera system’s vendor, Norcross-based LaserCraft Inc., $80,000 a year to maintain the camera system – $16,000 per camera, according to the grand jury report.
LaserCraft downloads images several times a day and sends police only those photographs that appear to show blatant violations, according to Capt. Mike Shockley, who oversees the system for the police department.
Both a clerk and a police officer review the photographs, make sure the vehicles in the pictures ran the red light, obtain the name and address of the registered owner and mail citations.
Under state law, a red-light violation issued by an automated system is considered a civil matter and $70 is the maximum fine a local government can set. When a police officer witnesses a violation and writes a ticket on the spot, the charge is criminal because the violator can confront his accuser in court, Shockley said.
Officer-issued citations carry a $140 fine.
The county mailed 14,299 red-light summonses last year, and 82 percent of violators paid fines without contesting them in court, according to Lumpkin’s report to the governor. Fewer than 1 percent of alleged violators, or 112, contested their tickets, 86 of which were dismissed and 26 resulted in guilty pleas.
The October 2007 term of the Clarke County grand jury formed a committee to review the red-light camera system to see if police and county officials are using the system responsibly, according to Seigler.
“By and large, we found that the county has been running the camera very well. We were all very pleased with how well it’s doing.”
Besides limiting the number of intersections where the police install enforcement cameras, the grand jury recommended setting criteria for where to place them, based on traffic counts, accidents, injuries and citations, and writing a policy about when a camera should be removed.
After the review, however, Seigler praised the system for the “checks and balances” that keep it fair.
“If you felt you got a ticket unfairly you can take it before a judge,” Seigler said. “Granted, there’s not a good chance of winning because the police do a good job weeding out questionable violations, and if a person is cited it is pretty clear from the photographs that the person ran the red light by a significant amount. There is no inherent bias in the system.”
Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 021008