Tenn. lawmakers learning from Ga. red light camera rules

Article from the Chatanooga Free Press, Published in the Rome Georgia News Tribune

NASHVILLE — A funny thing happened in Georgia after state lawmakers in 2008 required local governments to add an extra second of yellow light on traffic signals using cameras to catch drivers running red lights.

The number of camera-initiated tickets plummeted. So did enforcement revenues. As a result, some towns and cities, where officials previously had lauded photo enforcement’s impact on driver safety, decided to dump the camera program.

“It sort of exposed the myth of why those cameras are there,” observed Dalton, Ga., Mayor David Pennington, a photo-enforcement critic. “The reason that a lot of us were given was (it was) to prevent accidents.”

Other cities, including Lilburn, Ga., did not abandon their programs. It is unclear how many cities dropped their programs.

Georgia’s experience is not being lost on Tennessee, where legislative critics want to put a halt to what they contend are money-grabbing photo-enforcement programs across the state.

“It (Georgia) disincentivized it by taking away a lot of money,” said red-light critic Rep. Joe McCord, R-Maryville, who called Georgia’s law “an option” for Tennessee.

Rep. McCord wants local governments to have “exhausted any and every engineering possibility before we go to the revenue side. I think that (extending yellow-light timing) is one of the ways of doing that.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Tennessee House Transportation Committee holds yet another round of hearings on the use of red-light and speeding cameras.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit insurance industry-backed group that studies and promotes highway safety, 16 Tennessee cities now use photo enforcement cameras to catch red-light runners or speeders or both, including Chattanooga and Red Bank.

Much of lawmakers’ ire appears directed at the red-light cameras as opposed to cities’ use of the cameras to nab speeders. Chattanooga uses cameras to discourage speeding through the deadly “S” shaped curves on Hixson Pike and several other locations.

Chattanooga traffic engineer John Van Winkle said he hopes lawmakers will exercise caution when evaluating traffic cameras.

Mandating an extra second of yellow time would create a lot more seemingly endless caution times for motorists, said Mr. Van Winkle, who is expected to testify at this week’s hearing.

Drivers “would think … ‘This stays yellow a long time. I know I can beat it.’ So they’re more inclined to speed up to try to beat the signal,” he said.

While some cities in Georgia have reported dramatic declines in red-light citations since the new law took effect, Mr. Van Winkle said the real issue is what is happening with serious collisions.

“That’s the main goal, to make the streets safer,” Mr. Van Winkle said.

When Dalton’s first full year of red-light enforcement began in 2008, the Georgia city, using a private contractor, issued 6,906 red-light camera citations, according to figures provided by Dalton police. In February 2008 alone, 624 camera citations were issued.

In February 2009, after the new law took effect, photo-enforcement citations plunged. Just 125 of the citations were issued — almost an 80 percent drop from the previous February.

Similar results wreaked havoc on a number of other programs. Several cities announced they were suspending their programs because they no longer were breaking even.

Among them was Lilburn, Ga., which at one point depended on the program for 8 percent of the city’s budget. Lilburn City Manager Bill Johnsa said the number of citations dropped from about 1,500 in January 2008 to 313 this past February.

Mr. Johnsa said while Lilburn initially suspended the program, City Council members wanted to keep it “because the numbers have shown that it does make intersections safer.” The city renegotiated its contract with private contractor LaserCraft Inc. and since has resumed a scaled back program, he said.

Mr. Van Winkle in previous testimony before the state House Transportation Committee has emphasized the success of traffic cameras changing driver behavior along Hixson Pike’s “S” curves and other areas plagued by speeders.

City figures show the number of photo-enforcement citations on the “S” curves went from 1,878 when the program was implemented in June 2007 to just 223 this September.

But he has been more circumspect in his testimony about the impact of red-light cameras. During an interview last week, he said red-light cameras can have an impact, citing the first traffic light officials tested. It had a “very high percentage” of dangerous “T-bone” or right-angle collisions and left-turn collisions, he said.

The city used flash cameras to cover all four approaches. Drivers noticed and “the accident rate plummeted,” Mr. Van Winkle said. “We changed driver behavior.”

Both programs have proved lucrative for Chattanooga. Since Chattanooga began photo enforcement in mid-2007, the program has taken in $2.7 million in revenue and netted $1.5 million after expenses by Oct. 15, 2009. The bulk of the net revenue — $1.15 million — stemmed from its fixed and mobile automated speed enforcement.

Just this month, Chattanooga opened its first driver’s education program for teens. The pilot project’s first year $100,000 price tag is funded by the $50 fines that come from the city’s photo-enforced traffic lights and speed cameras. The teens will pay just $50, down from a usual private course’s costs of about $400.

Article by Andy Sher

One Response

  1. It would be a good idea to add an extra second of yellow light on traffic signals using cameras

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