Red-light cameras: Cash cow in the fast lane

Red-light cameras (right) are mounted on eastbound Route 70, at Springdale Road in Cherry Hill. The town has collected $1.26 million in fines using the cameras. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Red-light cameras (right) are mounted on eastbound Route 70, at Springdale Road in Cherry Hill. The town has collected $1.26 million in fines using the cameras. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 04, 2012

You are so busted.

You are in Cherry Hill driving a blue pickup truck in the left lane of Springdale Road where it crosses Route 70, and you are blowing through the intersection a second after the traffic light turned red.

Township police just got a nice video of your truck, as well as some close-up photos, and you will soon receive a notice in the mail demanding $85 for your haste.

Congratulations. You are part of a booming cohort in South Jersey: motorists caught by red-light cameras at nine intersections in six municipalities in Camden and Gloucester Counties.

The cameras have been very busy, nailing 125,000 drivers and racking up $9.5 million in fines since the first installations in 2010. That’s the equivalent of a red-light ticket for half the people who live in the six municipalities.

Now a North Jersey state legislator wants to ban the cameras statewide, arguing they are more about raising money than improving safety. His bill to outlaw them has gathered 2,600 signatures of support on an online petition and reignited a long-running debate about the value of red-light cameras.

Local police say the cameras make busy intersections safer by deterring motorists from running lights and hitting vehicles or pedestrians. They point to their own accident statistics and national studies, such as one by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that estimates red-light cameras saved 159 lives in 14 U.S. cities between 2004 and 2008.

Opponents say the cameras create more accidents by prompting drivers to slam on their brakes, which leads to rear-end crashes. They also point to studies, such as one by the Virginia Transportation Research Council, which concluded that the argument that cameras reduced injury accidents "was too close to call."

In Pennsylvania, only Philadelphia is permitted to have red-light cameras, and motorists caught by cameras at 21 city intersections have paid about $50 million in fines since the program started in 2005. There is debate in Harrisburg about whether to expand the program to other cities, continue it only in Philadelphia, or abandon it entirely.

In South Jersey, many drivers complain that the cameras are petty, nailing them for making a right turn on red without completely stopping. Most of the camera violations are for right-on-red infractions, not for driving straight through an intersection. But police say those turns can be dangerous, too, especially for pedestrians.

"People say, ‘I slowed down,’ or ‘Nobody stops, everybody just slows down,’?" said Cherry Hill Police Lt. Stephen Swierczynski. "But the law says you have to stop … and drivers who are just slowing down are not even looking at the crosswalk; they’re only worried about oncoming traffic."

Nationwide, running red lights is responsible for about 2 percent of all fatal accidents, about 676 deaths a year, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

To try to reduce that toll, New Jersey in 2008 created a five-year pilot program that allows 25 municipalities to install red-light cameras to reduce accidents at dangerous intersections where other measures have proved ineffective.

Three Camden County towns (Cherry Hill, Gloucester Township, and Stratford) and three Gloucester County towns (Glassboro, Deptford, and Monroe Township) are in the program, as is Brick Township in Ocean County.

The state Department of Transportation is required to analyze each year whether the cameras have made the intersections safer. So far, the jury is still out.

Only two intersections, both in Newark, had used red-light cameras long enough to have a year’s worth of before-and-after data, according to the DOT.

"Although these calculations suggest a potential positive effect on safety as a result of the pilot program, we believe the data are too limited to draw any meaningful conclusions," said the most recent DOT report, issued in November.

What is clear is that the cameras have been a moneymaker for the towns, the state, and two Arizona companies that install and operate them.

Of the $9.5 million collected in fines, the six municipalities have kept $5.6 million. The state has received $1.3 million. American Traffic Solutions Inc., of Scottsdale, collected $2 million to run the cameras for Gloucester Township, Monroe Township, Glassboro, and Deptford Township. Redflex Traffic Systems, of Phoenix, collected $343,442 for operating the camera systems for Cherry Hill and Stratford.

In addition, Gloucester County collected $539,518 from the Monroe Township and Glassboro cameras.

"It is a scandal that they are sucking up millions from motorists over this," said Robert Kelly, 68, of West Deptford Township who has been lobbying local officials to do away with the cameras ever since he got a ticket in June 2010 in Glassboro. "I suspect that there has been negligible improvement in safety since the overwhelming percentage of the ticketing comes from gently rolling right turns on red with traffic 30 seconds away."

"I wasn’t even sure you had to make a full stop. … It’s been accepted all these years," he said.

State Sen. Michael Doherty (R., Warren/Hunterdon) last month introduced a bill to ban the red-light cameras, saying there was little evidence they have "reduced the number or severity of accidents at the intersections where they are used." An identical bill has been introduced in the Assembly by Declan J. O’Scanlon Jr. (R., Monmouth) and Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D., Bergen).

"When combined with serious questions regarding personal privacy and the process and constitutionality of being ticketed by a machine, I believe it’s time that we put this ill-conceived red-light camera experiment to rest," Doherty said.

South Jersey police officials disagree. "We have a culture of bad driving, especially when it comes to cutting a light," said Glassboro Police Chief Alex Fanfarillo. "The cameras may not be palatable, but they are the solution. They do work."

In Glassboro, accident data show a clear improvement since the cameras were installed in 2010 at the intersection of Route 47 and Dalton Drive, Fanfarillo said.

There were 11 accidents in 2007, eight in 2008, nine in 2009, and then just two in 2010, the first year with the cameras. There were four accidents in 2011, Fanfarillo said.

"The only thing that has changed at the intersection is the cameras. They’ve reduced the number of accidents quite remarkably."

"If this senator was serious that it’s about the money, then just reduce the fine," Fanfarillo said.

In Gloucester Township, where four intersections on Blackwood-Clementon Road have cameras, Police Chief W. Harry Earle says there has been a reduction in the number of crashes along the corridor. Motorists are learning to stop, he said, at least at those intersections.

"It’s clearly changing behavior," he said. "People are realizing it’s no longer acceptable to roll through a red light."

In Cherry Hill, Chief Rick Del Campo said the cameras at Route 70 and Springdale Road show how widespread red-light-running is, even by police and other officials. If a police officer caught on camera can’t show he was responding to an emergency, he has to pay the ticket, Del Campo said.

Three Cherry Hill police officers in marked cars have been required to pay fines for running the light, as have four officers in their personal vehicles, a State Police officer, a sheriff’s officer, and other local officials, said Lt. Stephen Lyons, director of internal affairs.

If the red-light camera program is expanded, South Jersey police would like to put cameras at more intersections.

In Cherry Hill, the intersection of Route 38 and Church Road would be a prime candidate because of the number of accidents there, police said. In Glassboro, Fanfarillo said he would "absolutely" like to have cameras at two additional intersections: U.S. 322 East and Delsea Drive, and Greentree Road and Delsea Drive.

Fanfarillo said there was one way drivers could thwart the pilot program: "You can really make this a failure — if you just stop."

Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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