Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones said Monday he doesn’t recommend that the city bring back red-light cameras, despite studies that have shown the cameras improve safety.
Last year, the City Council asked its transportation and planning committee to study whether the cameras should return, after they were used in Charlotte from 1998 to 2006.
The city stopped using the cameras after the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that 90 percent of the revenue from the program must be given to the local board of education, which in Charlotte’s case is Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
At the time, the city said it couldn’t afford to pay the Florida contractor that managed the program if it had to give almost all of the money to CMS. The city said it would have had to spend money from its general fund.
At Monday night’s council meeting, council member Greg Phipps said the transportation committee that he chairs will study the red-light cameras this spring. He said the cameras could be an important tool toward realizing Vision Zero, a council-approved policy that aims for no traffic fatalities.
But after Phipps spoke, Jones said he wouldn’t be recommending that the cameras come back. He did not give an explanation, and the city didn’t comment Tuesday.
Four North Carolina cities now use red-light cameras: Raleigh, Wilmington, Fayetteville and Greenville.
Last March, then-council member Vi Lyles asked the city to bring the cameras back. Lyles, who is now mayor, said there had been too many accidents involving pedestrians, including an accident that nearly killed a woman on South Tryon Street.
“When I got home and heard the story of the woman who was struck in South End, I thought, we have got to do something about pedestrian safety,” Lyles said at the time. “The cameras may have downsides, but we have to study this.”
Lyles said Tuesday she needs to speak with Jones about his recommendation.
Julie Eiselt, the mayor pro tem, said she wished the city would study the issue further – or find an alternative.
“We say we want to be a walkable city, but if you take our life into your own hands, then that’s not the case,” she said.
Shannon Binns, executive director of Sustain Charlotte, said the recommendation was “very disappointing.”
“We have people running red lights with reckless abandon,” he said. “It causes accidents. It contributes to people not feeling safe.”
Council members also considered bringing the cameras back eight years ago. In 2010, city staff gave them a snapshot of four intersections and how they fared before, during and after the cameras were used. The intersections were 11th and Brevard streets; Tryon Street at W.T. Harris Boulevard; Idlewild Road at Independence Boulevard; and Tyvola Road at Wedgewood Avenue.
In general, the data showed a dramatic decrease in angle crashes – including wrecks where a vehicle runs a red light and hits or is struck by a vehicle going across the intersection – after the red-light cameras were installed. But after the cameras were taken down, wrecks continued to decline.
From 1995 to 1998, before the cameras were installed, there were 94 angle crashes at the four intersections and 258 rear-end collisions.
From 1998 to 2001, when the cameras were operating, there were 48 angle crashes and 322 rear-end collisions. The higher number of rear-end crashes might have been due to people slamming on their brakes as they approached the intersection out of fear of being ticketed, city officials say.
From 2006 to 2009, after the cameras were removed, there were 41 angle crashes and 187 rear-end crashes.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety studied red-light cameras in 2016. The nonprofit group compared large cities with red-light cameras to those without the cameras, and found that the cameras reduced red-light-running crash fatalities by 21 percent and all crashes at intersections by 14 percent.
The group acknowledged that some studies have shown that rear-end collisions may increase in cities with red-light cameras. But it said “such crashes tend to be much less severe than front-into-side crashes, so the net effect is positive.”
A Federal Highway Administration study found a decrease in right-angle crashes and a small increase in rear-end crashes where cameras are used. The study said the cameras provide a “modest aggregate crash-cost benefit.”