Analysis: Charlotte’s red-light cameras may have prevented serious wrecks

Red-light cameras, removed from Charlotte’s streets in 2006 because of a state court ruling, may have prevented serious wrecks at dangerous intersections, records examined by the Observer show.

The review comes as Fayetteville prepares to reinstall its red-light cameras this summer, saying they help with traffic safety.

Charlotte, Fayetteville and a number of other cities took down cameras in 2006 when the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that at least 90 percent of the revenue generated from fines had to go to public schools. Many city programs couldn’t reach that mark because of operating costs.

Fayetteville’s plan to reinstall the cameras has intrigued local officials, who said the cameras were effective – but costly – safety devices.

“We’ll monitor what goes on with the Fayetteville program,” said Doreen Szymanski, spokeswoman for the Charlotte Department of Transportation. “But it will be up to city officials to determine if they want to pursue them.”

Red-light cameras are controversial. Critics view them as nothing more than a revenue generator. Safety advocates see them as a way to decrease high-impact crashes.

Charlotte started its red-light camera program in 1998, changing vendors five years later.

To gauge the effect of the city’s red-light cameras, the Observer reviewed accident records from 23 intersections dating back to 2003.

The Observer looked to see if crashes were more likely to result in an injury while the cameras were up or after they were removed.

The devices coincided with a decrease in injury-related accidents, data show.

• Although the number of accidents per day remained about the same, the percentage of accidents that resulted in injury increased after the cameras were removed – jumping from 24 percent to 33 percent.

• From 2003 to 2006, no motorists were killed or involved in a life-threatening accident at intersections with cameras. Since the cameras were removed, two people have died and about 20 were seriously injured.

• The intersection of Sugar Creek Road and The Plaza saw the biggest jump in injuries. While the cameras were up, 16 percent of accidents there resulted in injuries. After they were removed, 47 percent resulted in injuries.

The data included information on more than 4,500 wrecks, ranging from minor accidents that caused property damage to fatal crashes.

The Observer’s review looked only at accident data. It did not measure if there was an increase of vehicles on the road or look at specific causes of the wrecks, such as bad weather or distracted drivers.

David Harkey, director of the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, said the Observer’s findings mirror state and national studies.

“We have been in support of these cameras in the state because we do see safety benefits from them,” he said.

Safety studies

Red-light cameras have monitored selected Raleigh intersections for years.

A 2012 analysis of the city’s program found that the devices reduce right-angle crashes by an average of 52 percent.

Similarly, a 2005 U.S. Department of Transportation study found that red-light cameras at 132 locations nationwide increased rear-end crashes but significantly decreased right-angle crashes.

Right-angle crashes, or T-bones, are often more dangerous because of their impact on the vehicle’s cab and their ability to cause vehicles to flip or spin out of control.

“If you can change someone’s life and prevent a crash, that’s the goal,” said Jed Niffenegger, Raleigh’s senior transportation engineer.

Raleigh uses red-light cameras at 15 marked intersections. A 2001 bill allowed Raleigh to pay vendors a fixed amount, with the rest – even if it falls below 90 percent – going to area schools, Niffenegger said.

The fixed rate paid to the vendor meant that, in some years, the schools received no money and the city had to subsidize the program.

Still, the cameras are worth it, Niffenegger said.

“Not utilizing stuff that we know works, such as this, at problematic locations, we’re not doing our jobs,” he said.

‘Accidents came back’

Szymanski oversaw Charlotte’s SafeLight program from 2000-06. She said the Charlotte DOT was pleased with the cameras but the city couldn’t fund the program under the court’s 2006 ruling.

She said Charlotte hasn’t pursued a bill similar to Raleigh’s because city staff thought it might not withstand a legal challenge.

“I think we’re erring on the side of being cautious so in no way the taxpayer ends up bearing the brunt of the program,” Szymanski said.

From the late 1990s to 2006, Charlotte paid vendors about $6.4 million – about 60 percent of all funds generated from fines, she said. About $4.6 million went to the city and was split between schools and safety programs.

Motorists nabbed by Charlotte’s cameras were issued a $50 ticket. The citation did not put points on a person’s insurance.

Szymanski and Charlotte City Council member David Howard want to see how Fayetteville’s program works out.

“I don’t want to make it feel like we’re trying to raise money,” Howard said. “If it changed the mindset of (motorists), it’s probably worth it ... If we can figure out the finances of it, I’d be happy to champion the conversation.”

Fayetteville, which will collect $100 per citation, devised a plan to give all the money to local schools. The school system will then give back part of the money for the city to pay the vendor and cover operational costs.

Kristoff Bauer, Fayetteville’s deputy city manager, said the idea of bringing back the cameras came at a joint city/county meeting early last year.

He said Fayetteville should have cameras monitoring 10 intersections by July 1.

“They have significant effect on reducing accidents, and once they were gone, those accidents came back,” Bauer said.

Revenue generators

Not everyone is convinced that red-light cameras protect motorists.

Some say school boards should not be in the traffic-control business. Others say the cameras can be rigged to generate revenue.

Recently, officials in Chicago removed dozens of cameras after a Chicago Tribune investigation found that some were placed at intersections without a history of crashes. The Tribune showed that the city generated some $140 million at intersections that averaged fewer than four injury crashes per year before the devices were installed.

In October, a Florida appeals court ruled that the city of Hollywood could not allow a private red-light camera company to decide when to issue a citation. Usually that decision is left to city officials. The court’s ruling led to a federal class-action lawsuit against the vendor.

In 2011, Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, proposed a bill that would outlaw red-light cameras in North Carolina. It failed, but Hise may introduce a similar one in the coming legislative session.

“It’s not there to improve safety,” Hise said. “They’re generally used for revenue generation.”

Hise said the high upfront cost and the possibility that North Carolina may outlaw them have prevented other cities from re-installing red-light cameras.