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Springs Police consider reviving photo enforcement against red light runners

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Drivers won’t automatically be cited, and can review footage. - SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
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  • Drivers won’t automatically be cited, and can review footage.
If you’re planning on running any red lights next year, be warned: You might get caught this time. Not by an attentive cop, but by a mounted camera that uses predictive software to capture evidence of red light violations.

Colorado Springs Police Department, at the direction of Mayor John Suthers and with input from City Council, may revive its photo traffic enforcement program as early as the second quarter of 2018. The first iteration of the program began in 2010 under then-Mayor Lionel Rivera and ended a year later under his successor, Steve Bach.

At the time of its demise, a press release from the city said the cameras just didn’t prove to be effective. Indeed, the contractor that ran the camera system reported that red light running was down at some intersections and up at others, meaning that the system may not have reliably been doing its job of discouraging bad behavior. Another motivator was that ending the program freed up officers to patrol the streets who otherwise spent time reviewing footage of intersections.
But fast-forward six years, and under-enforcement of traffic violations is still a problem.

At a public forum on Nov. 15, Police Chief Pete Carey made the case for bringing back photo enforcement. “We’re struggling right now with our response times on priority calls for service,” he said. “And, because of staffing issues, we’re not enforcing dangerous traffic violations as much as we should.” That takes a toll on public safety, he continued, pointing to traffic data that shows intersection-related crashes are up 4.5 percent from 2015 to 2016; injurious accidents are up 16.6 percent in the first six months of this year compared to the same period last year; and year-to-date traffic fatalities are up 13 percent over last year. “I see [red light cameras] as a heckuva good technological opportunity to be a force multiplier,” Carey said. “If it saves lives and prevents hospital visits, I think we should do it.”

The “if” part of his sentence was subject to much debate at the forum, as many attendees were skeptical about the program’s premise.

One cited multiple studies showing that red light cameras don’t decrease the overall number of crashes and, in some cases, increase them. A study by the Virginia Transportation Research Council, for example, found an 8 percent decrease in T-bone crashes, with variation, across six jurisdictions compared to a pre-camera period. That corresponded, however, with a 27 percent increase in rear-end crashes, with variation.

Attendee Harry Keefe, who resides near Palmer Park, saw that phenomenon play out when cameras were installed at the intersection of Platte Avenue and Murray Boulevard in 2011. Driving through twice daily on his commute, he recalled, “Drivers would slam on their brakes at yellow lights ... I saw two accidents happen like that.”

Lt. Cari Graves, who is managing the ramp-up of the potential photo enforcement program, responded that studies on the matter vary widely. A Northwestern University study, for instance, found that T-bone crashes fell by 19 percent with the addition of red light cameras in Chicago while rear-end collisions rose by 14 percent. T-bones tend to be far deadlier than rear-end crashes. “We’re also hearing from other communities that it does have a ... ‘training effect’ citywide,” she added, “[meaning,] drivers are stopping at other red lights [because] it reminds us all that red means stop.”

Graves is putting together a request for proposal, seeking bids from vendors to install cameras at four of the city’s most dangerous intersections (to be determined by traffic engineering data). If Carey gives the green light, the program’s first year would be a pilot period during which the department, via the vendor and various other city departments, could collect data on the cameras’ efficacy.

But some at the meeting openly questioned whether red light cameras were really intended to improve safety, and not just a ploy to milk more money out of residents.

“We just did a fee increase that’s going to help offset the cost for 120 new officers — which I’m grateful for — but now we’re asking for more revenue for the city?” asked attendee Rory Carlin. “It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”

Samuel Woods, a Springs transplant, warned that when his hometown in Virginia installed cameras, yellow light durations shortened, purportedly so the city could collect more fines from drivers who ran the red. Carey responded to this claim with what sounded like a touch of exasperation: “I’m not playing any games [...] that’s a leap of faith people have to take that this police department is going to do it right.”

So what are the fines? Municipal Court Administrator Judge HayDen Kane II explained that state statute dictates a $75 fee for red light violations with no license points docked. Any income over the program’s operating costs would go back into the city’s general fund, he said.

Drivers captured on camera won’t automatically get cited. According to Graves, cameras will only be activated if a car enters the intersection while the light is red. They will photograph the driver’s face and rear license plate, and film about 15 seconds of driving. The contractor will review the footage to see that an actual violation took place, weeding out anomalies like cars that stop just over the intersection line, before sending it to the police department. If officers there find probable cause, a notice will go out to the address of the registered vehicle. Defendants will have the chance to see the footage for themselves online. They will then be able to pay the ticket online, through the mail or in person. Tickets will be contestable at the courthouse.

City Councilor David Geislinger said that the hope was that no one would have to go through the process. “Frankly,” he said, “people should not run red lights [so] the hope is there’d be no revenue generated from this.”

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