Safety or money? An investigation into red light cameras in Opel - WRBL

Safety or money? An investigation into red light cameras in Opelika & Phenix City

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Phenix City's red light camera Phenix City's red light camera
One of Opelika's red light cameras One of Opelika's red light cameras
A result of "panic braking" A result of "panic braking"
Stats show mixed results on whether red light cameras reduce crashes Stats show mixed results on whether red light cameras reduce crashes

About a year has passed since Phenix City and Opelika installed red light cameras at certain intersections. City officials say they decided to put up the cameras to make busy intersections safer. Three of the four Opelika red light cameras are on Gateway Drive, one of the busiest roads in the city.

“These are major intersections,” said Opelika Police Chief John McEachern. “And our number one concern in implementing the traffic cameras is the safety of our motorists.”

Phenix City officials share the same vision with their one red light camera at the intersection of 13th Street and Broad Street.

“The main goal, and the only goal is public safety,” said Phenix City Assistant Police Chief Rob Casteel.

But many communities across the country have taken their red light cameras down because they say they increase accidents. The number of cities with red light cameras in the United States has dropped from about 700 in 2011 to 500 at the end of 2013, according to a report from the Reason Foundation.

Dr. Kenneth Warren, a professor at St. Louis University, has spent years researching the effectiveness of red light cameras. He says he's concluded that the cameras don’t work.

“They mostly don't work because they increase accidents at intersections overall,”  Dr. Warren told News 3 in a Skype interview. “One of the reasons for that is that they really increase rear-end accidents caused by what's called panic breaking.”

Warren says panic breaking is when drivers slam on the brakes to avoid running a red light with a camera. He says the driver avoids a ticket, but increases the risk that someone behind the driver will hit him or her. This was something Phenix City officials were aware of while they were considering the camera.

“One of the concerns with the red light camera was that it would increase the number of rear end crashes, but we haven't seen that,” said Casteel.

Crashes have decreased at the Phenix City intersection where the red light camera went up. There were 50 crashes in the year before the camera went up and 32 crashes the year after, a 36% reduction in crashes.

In Opelika, the cameras haven't made as much of a difference in reducing crashes. There was a combined 96 crashes at all 4 intersections from when they were installed until end of 2013. City officials were unable to provide exact numbers for 2012, but said there wasn't a substantial decrease in crashes. Dr. Warren claims that cities like Opelika, where red-light cameras don't make much of a difference in crashes, usually just care about the money they earn from the cameras.

“What's disappointing is that public officials have not really looked at these camera programs in a serious way and they have been using them as a cash cow,” said Dr. Warren.

In you run a red light in Opelika and Phenix City, you’ll receive a $100 citation. Most of the revenue goes toward the city and some goes toward the companies that manage the red light cameras. Phenix City officials say all of the money they earn from red light camera violations go back toward public safety.

“It can't be a cash cow for the city if you don't run the red light. The simple solution is to not run the red light,” responded Casteel.

“I know I speak for the mayor when he has said on numerous occasions that it would be fine with him if there were no citations and no money earned, because the safety of the citizens and the motorists coming through Opelika are our main concern,” said McEachern.

Both cities consider the red light camera program a success and have plans to move forward with more cameras. Opelika and Phenix City are in the process of identifying other intersections where the camera could be useful in reducing crashes.

Columbus considered putting up red light cameras back in 2001, but city officials decided against it because there was a high risk that the cameras would lose the city money.

“While Columbus experiences red light running just like every other city, there are much more economical ways to handle this using Police Enforcement other than the expensive Red Light Running Camera Systems,” said Hamlett, the city’s Traffic Engineering Manager.

You may notice cameras at intersections in Columbus; however, those are not red light cameras. They are primarily for traffic flow observation.

David Hurst

David Hurst, a graduate of the Univ. of Georgia, is News 3's nightside reporter.
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