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Red light traffic cameras draw mixed opinions

February 1st, 2014 9:26 pm by Gary B. Gray

Red light traffic cameras draw mixed opinions

(N. Roan St. Red Light Camera Photo by Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)

Some motorists still despise the rigid red light traffic cameras in place in Johnson City and Jonesborough; others welcome their lurking yet useful purpose.  

Whatever conclusions you’ve drawn about the inanimate, steely eyed law enforcement gizmos, the data they gather no longer represent initial snapshots for government officials assessing their usefulness now that they’ve been around a few years. 

Jonesborough official says numbers tell the tale

“I hear a lot about ‘big brother’ watching, but we don’t look at anything more than anyone on the road can see,” said Maj. Natalie Hilton, who along with her other duties with the Jonesborough Police Department, heads the town’s red light camera program. “You can’t stop 100 percent of the crashes, but you can decrease them. We have proof of that. You can’t argue with the numbers.”

In 2009, Jonesborough became the first community in Washington County to sign up with Arizona-based Redflex, which located cameras at three heavily traveled intersections along U.S. Highway 11E. Though Jonesborough’s population is just more than 5,100, U.S. 11E serves as the fifth heaviest-traveled throughway into Johnson City, and the town’s aldermen approved a new five-year deal with Redflex at the beginning of this year. 

From the first full year in which the cameras began watching in Jonesborough through the end of 2013, the number of total accidents declined by nearly 21 percent. The largest decline is at the intersection of U.S. 11E and Boones Creek Road, where the number of accidents fell by 60 percent. Accidents at the U.S. 11E and Forrest Drive intersection dropped by 25 percent.

“That’s huge,” Hilton said. “Is it all attributable to the cameras? We’d like to think so.” 

The only anomaly is the U.S. 11E and Headtown Road intersection at which the number of accidents stayed relatively level for a few years, then rose the past two years bringing the average increase to 72 percent.

“Headtown is the exception,” Hilton said. “I don’t know what it is, but that has always brought in the highest numbers. The count at that intersection rose from 11 to 19, but the number over the past three prior years was on the decline.”

Johnson City’s numbers flat

Johnson City signed up with Redfllex about one year after Jonesborough, placing red light traffic cameras at six busy intersections amidst a population of nearly 66,000. The city’s five-year contract with the company expires in November, and it remains unclear whether that agreement will be amended, continued or dropped.

“At this point, we haven’t talked about renegotiating the contract,” said Police Chief Mark Sirois. “I think the program is doing what it was intended to do, and I think it’s an effective program. We’ve also not considered adding additional intersections. I’m not saying that’s not an option, but there are no plans at this point to do so.”

Statistics show crashes at all intersections with cameras have increased by 2 percent since they were installed. From 2010 through 2013, crashes at three intersections decreased and three have increased. Accidents at the North Roan/Mountcastle intersection jumped by nearly 29 percent, an occurrence Sirois could not explain — as was the case with Hilton and the Headtown intersection.

“That could be because we’ve seen an increase in construction, but an increase in daytime population may be contributing,” Sirois said. “Regardless, of that corner, the camera program is intended to be a deterrent.”

If congestion at North Roan/Mouncastle has increased, the traffic volume numbers lend little support. The average daily counts from 2009 through 2012 have decreased each year.

In fact, traffic volumes at Johnson City’s six intersections have not changed significantly. This includes estimated averages ranging from 2008 through 2012, the latest information available, according to Traffic Engineer Anthony Todd.

“It’s all fairly flat,” Todd said. “It bounces up and down a bit, but have the counts really changed much over the years? Not really. The numbers are the most reliable we have, but we should not read too much into the fluctuation that appears in a single year.”

Meanwhile, there also has been a sizeable drop in the number of accidents at the State of Franklin Road/West Walnut intersection, which has dropped by nearly 30 percent. But overall, there seems to be no hard statistical evidence to support the fact that the cameras are warranted.

“In my opinion we need more data,” Sirois said. “Again, I believe the program has proven to be a deterrent. I also think word of mouth and exposure to the cameras have made motorists more aware of safety issues. With our contract renewal now in sight, that’s something I hope we keep in mind.”

Legislation cuts citations, revenues

On July 1, 2011, a new state law went into effect prohibiting officers from issuing citations to motorists turning right at a red light unless the intersection is clearly posted with a sign stating right turns on red are banned. It also nullified the camera’s use as evidence in court when motorists turned right on a red light without coming to a complete stop. Evidence from officers witnessing that event became the only factor admissible in court.  

The revenue stream, which profited Johnson City nearly a half million dollars in the first year of operation, netted the city a little more than $45,000 in 2013 — barely enough to pay for city staff to handle the paperwork and for police department employees to handle payments and enter data.

Despite the new laws, Johnson City — and Jonesborough — had to continue to shell out the company’s share according to the sliding scale incorporated into the contract, which basically rewards Redflex and punishes the city or town when the numbers drop.

Both Johnson City and Jonesborough, until the town amended its agreement last year, pay Redflex a fee based on the percentage of citation fines collected based on monthly volume. Redflex receives 79 percent of citation fines when the count is from 1-100, 50 percent when 101-150 citations are issued and 36 percent when 151 or more citations are issued. 

Johnson City Finance Director Janet Jennings said the impact of the 2011 legislation was quickly evident.

“What happened is we were no longer able to issue citations for the right on red, and you can see the court fine number going down,” she said. “At this point, it’s 100 percent about safety. It isn’t a revenue producer. We’re down now to where it’s neutral. We don’t look at it as a revenue source. The best thing would be that all the numbers are zero.”

Money collected by the city goes into its general fund and is not earmarked for any particular expenditure, Jennings said.

That’s not the case for Jonesborough, which amended its first five-year contract before it expired, changing the split between the town and the company to 50/50. The new contract went into effect on Jan. 14.

Before the 2011 legislation, Jonesborough’s agreement with Redflex functioned much like that of Johnson City’s. The major difference is court costs incurred in Jonesborough go into the town’s general fund where a specific line item is set up for police department expenses.

The money collected from litigation fees also goes into a specific account for police equipment, but only aldermen decide how that money is spent. In either case, aldermen make the final call as to how the money is spent.

“Originally, a Redflex ticket included a $50 fine, $25 in court costs and the $13.75 litigation fee for a total of $88.75,” said Abbey Miller, Jonesborough finance director. “The difference now is we charge a $50 flat fee, and that is split between us and Redflex. Of course if someone does challenge the ticket, they would have to pay the litigation fee. You can see the money that goes to that litigation fund was drastically reduced after the legislation. What we see now in that category comes mostly from late fees collected long after they were originally due.”

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