Friday, March 12, 2004

Run that light and smile

Camera may be watching you gun it

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

So many motorists run this red light at Hammond North condominiums on Hamilton Avenue that the city is considering installing a camera to catch drivers who fail to stop for the light.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/GLENN HARTONG
You're running behind, and the red light you're about to run isn't that red, you think to yourself. It's more like orange.

Think again.

In Cincinnati, you soon could be getting a picture in the mail - along with a ticket - showing just how red that light was.

City Manager Valerie Lemmie is expected to send ordinances to City Council by the end of the month that would allow police to use digital cameras to nab red-light runners.

It's the latest idea Lemmie has brought with her from Dayton, where the cameras have been in place for a year. Crashes at monitored intersections there are down almost 60 percent from the previous year, and the tickets have generated $175,200 for the city, paying for new police cruisers.

Depending on the technology, the cameras would use sensors to calculate the speed of the car and to predict whether a vehicle might run the light.

The camera would take a series of digital pictures or video, which would be sent to a police officer responsible for judging whether there was, in fact, an infraction.

Because the cameras can't always identify the driver, the city can't use the photos as evidence in a criminal case. Instead, it would be a civil offense, like a parking ticket, that would go to the owner of the car. While it can't count as points toward suspension of a driver's license, unpaid tickets could hold up the renewal of license plates.

Dayton contracts with Redflex, an Arizona-based company, to install, maintain and operate the cameras.

For each $85 ticket, Redflex and Dayton split the proceeds - 65 percent for the company and 35 percent for the city. Cameras can cost $50,000 to $70,000 each, but the vendor is usually responsible for them.

"Even with the reduction in driving behavior, the remaining drivers who run the red lights generate enough fines to pay for the program," said Bruce Higgins, president and chief executive of Redflex. The company also operates cameras in Toledo, the only other Ohio city to use red-light cameras.

Only 15 states and the District of Columbia allow the cameras, and more than 90 cities in those states use them. State laws in Indiana and Kentucky don't allow the cameras.

In its first year, Dayton has had trouble collecting. About 30 percent of the 12,321 citations remain unpaid. Wednesday, Dayton sued 15 repeat red-light scofflaws in an attempt to collect.

The cameras' location is no secret. Signs at intersections note the existence of cameras, and a public-service campaign would likely accompany any pilot program.

Still, the American Automobile Association and the American Civil Liberties Union are among those that have voiced concerns about privacy and due process.

Cincinnati Police Sgt. Ray Smith said the technology has vastly improved in the last few years, and there would be an appeal process. He said the city is taking its time to make sure it gets the right system.

That's also a concern for City Council.

"The big thing is to make sure the technology does what it's supposed to," said Councilman David Pepper, chairman of the Law & Public Safety Committee.

"We need to generate revenue, and what this does - if it works right - is catch people we should be catching anyway."

Lemmie said it's safety - and not money - driving her decision. The cameras act as a deterrent, and free up police officers to deal with serious crime, she said.

How much of a problem is red-light running?

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, it's the fastest-growing cause of traffic fatalities nationally, up 19 percent from 1992 to 2000.

Accidents caused by red-light running are more likely to cause injury than any other type of accident.

But a city-by-city study of red-light crashes from 1992 to 1998 - the most recent data available - found that Cincinnati was the seventh-safest big city in the country, with 1.4 deaths per 100,000 population. Phoenix was most dangerous at 10.8; Columbus was safest at 0.5.

But that doesn't mean there's no demand here.

In December, 117 residents of the Hammond North high-rise in College Hill petitioned City Council for a red-light camera at the entrance to their building on Hamilton Avenue. One resident's husband works in Dayton, and she suggested red-light cameras.

"The light seems to catch people by surprise. They come down the hill too fast," said Stephen G. Alexander, who led the condo association's petition campaign.

"When you turn left out of our drive, it's terrifying to see the traffic coming at you in your rear-view mirror."

But what about the idea of Big Brother watching you as you drive around town?

"We had a big discussion about that here," Alexander said. "We all decided that our safety is more important. This isn't a civil-rights issue. I see this as no different from police using a radar gun."

Police and traffic engineers haven't yet identified how many cameras Cincinnati would mount, or at which intersections.

But a report from Transportation Director Eileen Enabnit last week said Hammond North Drive and Hamilton Avenue was under consideration for a pilot project.


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