red light camera

Red light cameras up for debate

Issuing tickets to drivers for running a red light used to require a police officer watching the intersection, but more cities are turning to red light camera systems to catch and ticket violators. Not all are happy with the results.

Currently there are red light cameras in about 21 states and in over 100 cities across the U.S. Most systems consist of radar detection, imaging (video or still camera, flash lighting) and a microprocessor, which manages the data collected and transfers it to a central facility that is usually operated by the system’s vendor.

Red light cameras cannot take a picture until the light turns red. When the light changes to red and the radar detects a car in the intersection, one photo is taken. A second later, an additional photo is taken, then both are transferred as an FTP upload to the central facility.

“The two photos determine where the car is when the light turns red and if the car has failed to stop despite crossing the intersection,” said Patrick Howley, director of engineering at Redflex, a red light camera vendor.

“Once we get the photos, three of our people look at the information and validate that a violation occurred,” Howley said. “The first looks at it online to see that it meets the conditions of our clients. The second person verifies the criteria are met and a third person checks the first two,” he said.

“Then a law enforcement official comes to us and checks the data to see if there is a violation,"  Howley explained. "If the officer determines there is a violation, the DMV information is processed by the officer and citation is mailed out.”   

And throughout that process, each image and its related metadata must be securely stored and tracked. Factors such as where the information is stored and for how long depend on the municipality and its guidelines, according to Tony Perrino, director of business development for Redflex, but typically the data is stored from 30-60 days. 

“Every jurisdiction sets their rules on storage size and how long it’s saved and when it can be deleted,” Howley said. “Some places will get rid of information if no violation occurred within two days; others can hold any information for up to a year."

Storage costs will depend on the policies set and the volume of traffic.  And the price of the system hardware can vary as well. According to information from the Department of Transportation, setup costs can run $67,000 to $80,000 per intersection.

“The cost varies depending on what type of system they need, what the population is and what kind of camera service they need also,” Perrino said. “All sorts of variables can occur; you can have a small town that needs just one camera for a two-lane street in the middle of town, or a big city that needs 50 for six-lane streets.”

Few cities pay for the camera systems up front, however; most instead share the revenue made through violations with the vendor.

“We own the equipment, we pay for the development, manufacturing and maintenance at no charge to the client,” Howley said. “Ninety percent of our clients pay nothing out of pocket for the system.”

Such systems can generate millions of dollars per year in violations, but civilians and politicians alike have debated their usefulness. 

Earlier this month Temple Terrace, Fla., joined other cities in ending its red light camera system according to a CBS 10 report. The change occurred after a 2013 CBS investigation showed a drop in people running red lights was a result of longer yellow lights. Temple Terrace statistics also showed in each of the last two years the number of crashes caused by red light running increased.

Not all are opposed to the cameras, however. In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper recently vetoed several bills that would limit the use of red-light cameras in the state. “While not always popular, when used correctly, radar and red-light cameras make roads safer,” he said, according to a report by the Colorado Statesman.

Despite all of the criticisms red light camera systems get, Howley maintained that participating in a red light camera program is solely up to the driver of the vehicle.

“We like to say this is a voluntary program," he said. "If you don’t run a light, you won’t get a ticket.”

About the Author

Derek Major is a former reporter for GCN.

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