October 6, 2008 in Opinion

Our View: City must publicize effects of cameras at lights

 

Soon, motorists who ran red lights at three intersections in Spokane this week will get a letter in the mail informing them that if they do that after Nov. 1, they’ll owe the city $124.

They’ll be shocked. They’ll be angry. They might become instant opponents of placing cameras at intersections. But they probably won’t do it again.

Yes, the photo police have been deployed at Browne Street and Sprague Avenue, Hamilton Street and Mission Avenue, and Division Street and Francis Avenue, prompting the predictable cries of “Big Brother” and “cash cow.”

The city needs to meet those complaints head on by making the system as transparent as possible. Outcomes need to be recorded accurately and conveyed to the public with regularity. Public information campaigns are needed to inform drivers of the rules of the road and what is permissible as lights shift from yellow to red. Some of the revenue needs to be applied to fixing poorly designed intersections. Hamilton and Mission is a good example.

In short, the city ought to go out if its way to show that this is a positive solution and not just a way raise money.

Red-light running is a problem in Spokane. The Police Department reports that in 2006 violators caused 106 crashes that resulted in injuries. However, it has been difficult to pin down the effectiveness of the cameras in other communities. A 2005 review of red-light camera research by the Federal Highway Administration shows that all of the studies have holes in the data. Even in municipalities where right-angle collisions have decreased, it’s not clear if the cameras alone can be credited or whether public information campaigns helped.

It would appear that those two strategies in concert do cut down on right-angle collisions. But some municipalities report an increase in rear-end collisions as drivers slam on the brakes, rather than speed through the light. However, those kinds of crashes don’t generally result in serious injuries.

In Seattle, the number of citations has dropped, which means fewer violations in the intersections with cameras. What’s uncertain is whether other intersections are also safer.

We understand that there will be grumbling about being issued a citation via the mail. We understand the unease some people have with being watched. But we think the photo cameras program should be given a chance to prove itself. It might allow departments to free up officers for other duties. It might lead to improvements in intersections. It might reduce the number of tragic accidents.

That is, if it is used properly. The burden of proof is on the city.


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