At any given time, three Jefferson police officers are patrolling the Jackson County city’s 26 square miles, so Chief Joe Wirthman is looking for electronic help to keep an eye on the most dangerous intersection in town.
Wirthman has proposed installing red-light cameras, now used in more than 120 Georgia cities, to catch drivers who disobey traffic signals at U.S. Highway 129’s interchange with Interstate 85.
The idea has drawn the ire of some Jefferson residents who say the chief is more concerned with raising money than improving driver safety.
“I don’t get why people are complaining,” Wirthman said. “If you plan on obeying the law, then you don’t have anything to worry about.”
The Jefferson City Council plans to vote at 7 tonight on whether to negotiate a contract with red-light camera installer LaserCraft and whether to pursue state Department of Transportation approval for the project.
The interchange features two of the most heavily traveled intersections in Jackson County and ranks among the most dangerous. In 2008, 69 wrecks have been recorded at the spot – most caused by people running red lights. During a brief study in October, cameras caught 46 drivers running red lights during one 10-hour period.
Although most agree the police department should do something to make the interchange safer, some citizens remain leery of the cameras.
“I don’t really agree with the cameras part of it,” said Brandon Kouba of Jefferson. “I feel it’s an invasion of privacy. Ideally, I’d like them to just put more cops out there. … If there are cops there, you know a cop is watching you. With a camera, you don’t know who’s watching.”
While several transportation studies show red-light cameras can lead to more rear-end wrecks, they do prevent drivers from running red lights, said Athens-Clarke police Maj. Mike Shockley.
The Athens-Clarke Police Department added red-light cameras at the intersection of Lexington, Gaines School and Cherokee roads in Southeastern Clarke County in 2005, and put up a second set at the Westside intersection of West Broad Street, Alps Road and Hawthorne Avenue at the beginning of 2007.
Since then, the number of wrecks at the Lexington-Gaines School-Cherokee intersection has dropped drastically, Shockley said.
When police install cameras at one intersection, drivers assume they’re everywhere, he said.
Athens has seen fewer red-light runners and fewer collisions across town, even though those two intersections are the only two equipped with enforcement cameras, Shockley said.
“We have seen a reduction in accidents, and we’ve seen a reduction in violators,” he said. “That’s just kind of common sense, because once you get a ticket in the mail, you’re less likely to run the light.”
Police don’t yet know how many tickets the camera at West Broad Street tallied this year, but they expect to see fewer citations and crashes when they audit the numbers in January, Shockley said.
Together the cameras at the two intersections were responsible for more than 14,000 citations during 2007. Athens-Clarke charges $70 for a camera ticket and doesn’t report the violation to the state Department of Drivers Services or to a driver’s insurance company.
About 90 percent of drivers send in a check to pay the fine, while others sign an affidavit swearing they weren’t driving when the car ran the light. Some ignore the ticket, and a judge issues a bench warrant for the person’s arrest.
Detractors say it’s those hassle-free $70 fines that are driving Wirthman to invest in the cameras.
That’s certainly part of it, Wirthman concedes.
Athens-Clarke’s cameras generated more than $1 million in revenue from 2005 through 2007. After paying for the cameras, their annual maintenance and a clerk to prepare the citations, the police department made nearly $570,000 during those three years.
That money went into buying new communications equipment for Athens’ patrol officers. Depending on how the local ordinance is written, a city or county can use the revenue to cover any government expense, Shockley said.
Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Monday, December 22, 2008, Article by Merritt Melancon
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