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In a Flash

Tucson's political leaders seem hesitant to add to the city's four red-light cameras, despite anecdotal success

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The bright camera flashes that catch red-light runners at four Tucson intersections no longer startle drivers like they once did. But have the cameras been "effective in reducing both the number and severity of crashes," as was promised when they were first proposed?

That question could be answered by a two-year study of the effectiveness of Tucson's photo radar and traditional traffic-enforcement methods. With an announcement scheduled on Jan. 14, the study will be conducted by the city of Tucson in cooperation with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In the meantime, Lt. James Bentley, who leads Tucson Police Department's traffic division, cites "anecdotal evidence" that the cameras have accomplished the goal of increasing safety.

These statistics include a reduced number of collisions at three of the intersections—Tanque Verde and Grant roads; 22nd Street and Wilmot Road; and Oracle and River roads. At Nogales Highway and Valencia Road, the figures went up from 2006 to 2008.

Cumulatively, the number of collisions at the four intersections was 109 in 2007, the year the first red-light camera was installed. In 2008, when the other three cameras became operational, that number was 81. Additional information supplied by Bentley indicates total collisions across Tucson also dropped from 2007 to 2008, and continued to do so into 2009.

It is this type of unspecific information that led The Washington Post in 2005 to analyze the impact of dozens of red-light cameras in the District of Columbia. The conclusion: "The cameras do not appear to be making any difference in preventing injuries or collisions."

After reviewing appropriate data, Pima County officials determined collisions in unincorporated areas were usually speed-related. That is why the county opted to install automated speed cameras at a number of locations instead of red-light devices at intersections.

But Bentley says the speed of cars going through Tucson's targeted intersections has certainly been reduced since the red-light cameras were installed.

At each of the four intersections, the number of camera flashes—which signify red-light runners—has gone down substantially. The most dramatic decline was a 45 percent reduction, to approximately 1,400 per month, at the Oracle/River Road intersection.

But have the cameras achieved the primary goal of reducing side-impact crashes?

"I don't know," Bentley admits.

It would be surprising if this type of collision hasn't been reduced. A 2005 study by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) on the impact of red-light cameras in seven communities nationwide reported a significant decrease in side-impact crashes—although there was also a significant increase in rear-end crashes.

As a result of these findings, and taking into account the greater severity of side crashes, the FHWA concluded that red-light cameras "do indeed provide a modest aggregate crash-cost benefit."

Arizona's AAA program also backs the program. Calling red-light running in Arizona "a pretty big problem," spokeswoman Michelle Donati says the organization supports the cameras as part of an overall solution that also includes more education and better intersection engineering.

But critics contend the camera program is simply an effort to generate money for the municipality.

Roy Reyer, a provider of products to thwart photo-radar devices, thought so as quoted in Jim Nintzel's "Snap Judgment" (April 5, 2007).

"When you come down to the crux of it," Reyer declared, "it's a great way for cities to make a lot of money."

Bentley argues that just isn't the case. While the citation fines do bring in millions of dollars, Bentley says that 45 percent of it automatically goes to the Arizona Supreme Court. After that, the vendor who installed and operates the cameras—American Traffic Solutions—gets paid a fee. This amount, including the photo-radar van the firm provided, totaled $1.3 million in the last fiscal year.

The company only gets paid for valid citations, not every camera flash. Bentley points out that in April 2008, 1,200 pictures were taken at 22nd and Wilmot, and from these, 600 tickets were actually mailed.

Bentley explains that the company first reviews the photos for quality and to ensure the equipment was working properly. Then three TPD officers physically inspect each image to compare the picture with the vehicle owner's license photo.

"If they can't positively identify the driver," Bentley says, "they don't send the ticket." Instead, they might mail a notice of violation requesting to know who was driving the vehicle.

The salaries of the three reviewing police officers, along with two others who give testimony in disputed cases, also come out of the program budget. As a result, not a whole lot of money is left.

"It basically breaks even," Bentley says. "Maybe it makes or loses $100,000 a year."

While the controversial red-light camera program may have helped reduce collisions, its political support appears lukewarm, at best.

Several months ago, City Council members were individually presented with a proposal to install red-light cameras at four additional intersections—Broadway Boulevard and Kolb Road; Broadway and Craycroft Road; Golf Links and Swan roads; and Grant and Oracle roads.

That proposal is as far as the idea has gone. A spokesman for Mayor Bob Walkup didn't return a phone call seeking comment as to when, if ever, this suggestion might be acted upon.

Despite the lack of response, Bentley thinks the current effort is important to the community.

"Do I believe the (red-light camera) program is worth it?" he asks. "Yes, I do. Drivers are slowing down and becoming more aware of their surroundings."

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