The numbers are so convincing that even some of the harshest critics have changed their minds: Crashes have declined dramatically in the five years since red-light cameras were introduced in Spokane.
Crashes are down at the intersections where the cameras are installed and within the city as a whole, according to collision data maintained by the Washington State Patrol.
It may be hard to prove that red-light cameras are behind the reduction in collisions. In the same five-year period, crashes have declined across the state and in many jurisdictions, even those without red-light cameras.
But it does at least hinder arguments that red-light cameras could actually increase the number of crashes as a result of people slamming on the brakes to avoid tickets. In fact, crashes attributable to following too closely, like most other kinds of crashes, have fallen since the cameras were installed.
Spokane police Officer Teresa Fuller, who runs the program and signed most of the 16,596 violations issued last year, said red-light cameras have changed driver behavior for the better.
“People get into a lull and don’t realize what bad habits they get into,” she said.
Police say the program is so successful they may ask the Spokane City Council to consider adding cameras to more intersections. Now that the city has abandoned its original rule that all profits from the cameras must be spent on traffic safety improvements, there’s a powerful financial incentive for the city to do so.
Revenue has increased every year the cameras have operated. In 2013, the city pocketed more than $860,000 after paying fees it owed the Arizona company that runs the program.
Council members Mike Fagan and Mike Allen, who opposed red-light cameras when they ran for office in 2011, changed their minds when presented with crash data. They voted last year to renew a contract with Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions for another five years.
“We were going into this very skeptical,” Fagan said, but “there’s no way to refute the data.”
A crash in collisions
Cameras were installed at three Spokane intersections in 2008. The total number of crashes has declined at all three, as have crashes caused at least in part by running red lights. Crashes caused by “following too closely” – the likely cause of rear-end crashes from drivers slamming on brakes to avoid running a light – have declined at two of the three intersections. They were steady at the other intersection.
• Browne Street and Sprague Avenue had an average of 20 crashes a year in the four years previous to 2008. In the four years after, there was an average of 11.
• At Francis Avenue and Division Street, there was an average of 21 crashes a year in the four years before red-light cameras; in the four years after, there was an average of 14.
• At Mission Avenue and Hamilton Street, there was an average of 19 crashes a year before cameras and an average of 17 after they were installed.
• Citywide, there was an average of 4,916 crashes annually in the four years previous to 2008. In the four years after, the average fell by 25 percent, to 3,675. The average number of crashes that resulted in serious injuries fell from 67 to 56. The number of deaths from crashes, however, increased from an average of eight a year in the four years before 2008 to an average of 12 annually in the four years after.
The city introduced cameras to four more intersections in 2010 and three more intersections in 2011. Those intersections also are showing declines in crashes.
Police say there hasn’t been any change in how crashes are reported that would lead to improved crash statistics in Spokane.
Steve Polzin, director of mobility policy research at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida, said research indicates that cameras can reduce crashes both at intersections where they’re placed and beyond.
But he believes other factors also are at play in the dramatic collision decline in Spokane.
“Certainly red-light cameras don’t explain the 25 percent accident reduction rate citywide,” Polzin said.
He said one factor in a decline in crashes across the country is a reduction in the amount people are driving. People are driving about 5 percent less than they were in 2008 before the recession, and younger drivers – who tend to be involved in more crashes – are driving even less.
The crash decline is happening statewide. Between 2009 and 2012, the state averaged 425 crashes that resulted in fatalities and about 2,000 crashes that resulted in serious injuries each year. Those numbers are down 23 percent for fatality crashes and 16 percent for serious injury crashes compared to data from 2004 to 2007.
Money now flows to other programs
When the red-light program was first approved in Spokane, critics argued it was more about raising money for government through the for-profit companies that operate red-light cameras. To blunt that argument, the City Council stipulated that money raised above the amount needed to maintain the program must be used for traffic safety projects.
But with money pouring in, city leaders last year decided to divert some away from traffic safety.
Last year, the city raised $1.5 million in fines from camera tickets. Of that, the city paid $631,000 to American Traffic Solutions, the company it contracts with to run the program. The rest was the city’s to keep, and part was used to pay Fuller’s salary and benefits and for some minor street costs associated with the program. Beyond that, money was used strictly for traffic safety projects.
This past fall, however, the council voted to use $20,000 in red-light camera revenue on a graffiti prevention program. It also voted to use $50,000 on the city’s police volunteer program, Spokane Community Oriented Policing Services. The vote didn’t improve the volunteer program’s overall budget because the city cut $50,000 of other funding from the program to use elsewhere.
The council also voted to use $100,000 of red-light camera cash to pay the salary and benefits of a new traffic safety police officer. That position is supposed to be in addition to the 25 new police officers the city already planned to add this year. The council determined that $300,000 in red-light profits still would be reserved for traffic safety projects, split evenly among the three City Council districts.
Council members no longer deny that revenue is an attractive part of the program. Many point out that nearly half the tickets have been paid by drivers who live outside city limits, essentially making the program an opportunity to tax drivers who use city streets but haven’t paid for them.
“They’re helping us pay for our infrastructure needs,” Allen said. “We’re paying for traffic calming for bicyclists and pedestrians and traffic safety that we wouldn’t have been able to afford.”
Councilman Steve Salvatori said he doesn’t think the money should be earmarked exclusively for traffic safety or “traffic calming.” He would support using the money to hire more police officers not restricted to enforcing traffic laws.
“I am happy, willing and able to say what good does it do to walk down a new sidewalk if you’re going to get mugged?” he said.
More cameras anticipated
Fuller said based on crash statistics, she likely will propose adding cameras at two or three more intersections. Candidates include Mission and Greene Street, Trent Avenue and Napa Street, Spokane Falls Boulevard and Washington Street, and Five Mile Road and Ash Street.
But some City Council members prefer to instead install speed cameras in school zones. Spokane’s contract with ATS anticipates the possibility that speed cameras will be added.
Doing so would require a vote of the City Council.
Fuller credits cameras, at least in part, for the city’s crash reduction even as drivers seem more distracted by their cellphones.
“They are making a difference,” she said.
Fuller expects to propose new intersections for cameras in the next few months.
How the red-light camera system works
• A representative from the company that runs Spokane’s red-light cameras reviews all footage caught by the devices and forwards what they believe to be violations to Spokane police Officer Teresa Fuller for her review. She makes the final determination if a ticket will be sent and signs the tickets. If she has a conflict of interest in a case, she said, a sergeant reviews the ticket.
• If a police car is found in violation and there was no justified reason for the police officer to be running a light, the officer is subject to discipline but a violation is not issued, Fuller said.
• Tickets mailed to drivers come with pictures showing the alleged violation and a Web link to video showing the alleged violation.
• The city is working with the Department of Licensing to implement the withholding of vehicle tabs for drivers who haven’t paid their red-light camera tickets.
Spokane’s camera contract
The Spokane City Council unanimously approved a five-year extension with American Traffic Solutions, of Scottsdale, Ariz., in October. The city pays ATS $4,000 per month, per camera. The city expects to pay ATS $625,000 a year and generate $1.5 million a year under the contract. After three years, prices can increase by inflation.
The city can’t pay ATS any more than the fines they’ve collected unless:
• The police officer who reviews the tickets recommended by ATS waives more than 10 percent of the “valid violations.”
• The city declines to “enforce illegal right turn on red violations.”
• The city decides to install a camera at an intersection that averages fewer than eight violations per day at the time of installation.
Washington laws on automated safety cameras
• Violations do not appear on a driver’s record and can’t be used to increase car insurance prices.
• Cameras must not capture images of drivers.
• Yellow light times must be in accordance with state law and may not be decreased after cameras are installed.
• “Automated traffic safety cameras” are allowed only to catch red-light violations, speed violations in school zones, violations at railroad crossings, or people who don’t observe red flashing lights and stop signs on school buses. Spokane’s City Council has approved their use only for red-light running.
• The owner of a car found in violation via a camera is presumed to be the driver unless the owner states under oath, in a written statement to the court or in testimony before the court, that he or she wasn’t driving the car at the time of the violation.
• Electronic images must not be “retained longer than necessary” to enforce the violation.
• Rental car companies can pay fines or give police the name of the person renting the vehicle at the time. Those people are issued the violations.