Testing South Jersey red-light cameras to meet new rule

Posted: June 21, 2012

Traffic engineers were out Wednesday in South Jersey, counting cars and timing traffic to see if red-light cameras could meet a new state rule that has forced a temporary ban on some traffic tickets.

And irate motorists were calling local officials and police, seeking refunds for $85 fines already paid for allegedly running the lights.

The state Department of Transportation on Tuesday ordered 21 towns, including four in Camden and Gloucester Counties, to stop ticketing motorists while the lights were checked.

The state wants to know if the signals have a sufficiently long yellow phase to meet requirements under a pilot program that permitted 25 towns to install red-light cameras.

"We've done the analysis, and now we're waiting on the township engineer to do the certification," said Kevin Heydel, business administrator for Monroe Township, one area town ordered to stop issuing tickets.

Ron Morello, police chief for Stratford, said Wednesday that the borough's municipal engineer hoped to certify "today or tomorrow" the timing of the lights to satisfy the state requirement.

Cherry Hill is "confident that it has satisfied all DOT requirements" and is working with an engineer to provide the appropriate certification for its red-light cameras at Route 70 and Springdale Road, said township spokesman Jason Springer.

Once towns analyze traffic speeds and light timing and find them in compliance, they can seek state authorization to resume issuing tickets based on the cameras. Any motorist caught by a camera during the ban period could then be issued a ticket retroactively.

If cameras fail to meet the state requirement, they will be shut down, and the offending intersection will be removed from the pilot program, Transportation Department spokesman Joe Dee said Wednesday.

Dee declined to address the issue of refunds for motorists if the lights were shown to be improperly calibrated.

"I can't speculate on that. . . . Let's see what the studies show," Dee said. "I'm not going to give legal advice at this point."

Cherry Hill said its municipal court "has been instructed by the state administration of courts to follow regular procedures for any tickets that have already been issued."

That apparently means a legal challenge is the only way to seek a refund.

Under the pilot program, a traffic signal's yellow phase must be timed to the prevailing speed of traffic at an intersection. That differs from the usual standard for traffic signals, which is typically based on the speed limit.

The program requires a yellow light be at least three seconds long if at least 85 percent of the approaching traffic travels less than 25 m.p.h. For every 5 m.p.h. increase in the prevailing speed above 30 m.p.h., the minimum duration of the yellow light must be increased by a half-second.

So a yellow light would have to be set at 5.5 seconds if the prevailing speed were 55 m.p.h.

The normal standard requires the yellow phase to be at least one second for every 10 m.p.h. of the speed limit, so a four-second yellow would be required in a 40 m.p.h. zone. The standard is rounded up to the nearest second: A 45 m.p.h. zone would require a five-second yellow.

The towns have been ordered to analyze their lights, cameras, and traffic speeds by Aug. 1 to certify that the yellow phase meets the pilot program's standards.

Cameras in Deptford and Gloucester Township have already been certified and are unaffected by Tuesday's order.

Red-light cameras have been controversial - and lucrative - since New Jersey started the pilot program in 2009 to test their effectiveness in reducing crashes and injuries in 25 municipalities.

A recent Inquirer report showed cameras at nine intersections in six municipalities in Camden and Gloucester Counties had caught 125,000 drivers and racked up $9.5 million in fines since the first installations in 2010.

That's the equivalent of a ticket for half the people who live in the municipalities: Cherry Hill, Stratford, Gloucester Township, Deptford, Glassboro, and Monroe.

State transportation officials said Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon (R., Monmouth), an opponent of the red-light cameras, had pointed out that the yellow-light formula in the pilot program differed from the legally required and nationally accepted formula in the state traffic code.

O'Scanlon has sponsored a bill in the Assembly to do away with the cameras, as has Michael Doherty (R., Warren-Hunterdon) in the state Senate.

One of the sponsors of the Assembly bill, Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D., Bergen), said Wednesday that the temporary ban on camera ticketing was "a smart move on the part of DOT, from both a safety and fairness perspective. What was initially intended to help promote safer roads has potentially promoted the opposite.

"I'm sure there are many drivers who've felt pressured to speed up or slam on their brakes so they don't get caught on camera going through a red light. If the yellow lights are improperly timed, these cameras present a double safety threat."

Cameras are in place at these intersections in Camden and Gloucester Counties:

Cherry Hill: Route 70 and Springdale Road.

Stratford: U.S. 30 and White Horse Road/Berlin Road.

Gloucester Township: Four locations on Blackwood-Clementon Road.

Deptford: Route 41 and Deptford Center Road.

Glassboro: Route 47 and Dalton Drive.

Monroe: Black Horse Pike and Sicklerville Road.

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.


Contact Paul Nussbaum

at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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