Transportation

Tuscaloosa, Ala., Doesn't Know if Red Light Cameras are Improving Safety because of Data Shortcomings

Five years after the first red light camera was installed, the city does not appear to be tracking data on whether the cameras have improved safety at monitored intersections.

by Drew Taylor, The Tuscaloosa News / March 19, 2018
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(TNS) — In June 1999, a driver in a pickup truck ran a red light at the intersection of Skyland Boulevard and Alabama Highway 69 South and slammed into a car, killing two women inside.

That horrific crash was the impetus for legislation that enabled Tuscaloosa to install traffic cameras at intersections throughout the city to catch red-light runners. It took several attempts in the Legislature over the next decade, but the local bill finally became law in 2010. Three years later, the city installed its first red-light enforcement camera at the intersection of 15th Street and Dr. Edward Hillard Drive. Since then, eight more cameras have been installed at five other high-traffic intersections.

Previously, by law, a police officer had to witness the infraction to ticket a driver who ran a red light. With the new law, the city can issue citations using photos that capture the tag numbers of vehicles that commit the violation.

But the city's argument for traffic cameras has always been safety. That fatal accident nearly 20 years ago at Skyland and Alabama 69 was used to help persuade legislators to pass the law, and city officials have pointed to studies showing the cameras reduce accidents as drivers learn that they will have to pay a fine for not obeying traffic signals at monitored intersections. The safety component appears to have been on the minds of legislators when they passed the law. It includes a provision that requires the city to "keep statistical data regarding the effectiveness of photographic traffic signal enforcement systems in reducing traffic-control device violations and intersectional collisions" and send that data annually to the Alabama Department of Transportation and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

Five years after the first camera was installed, however, the city does not appear to be tracking whether the cameras have improved safety at the monitored intersections. It's unclear whether the city is even compiling the collision data as required by the 2010 law. The city did not comply with The Tuscaloosa News' requests for the collision data, and the Alabama Department of Transportation also refused The News' request for the data or to even acknowledge whether the city has provided it, saying it is not subject to the state's open records law.

Meanwhile, the city has issued more than 31,000 citations to red-light runners using the automated cameras and collected more than $1.7 million in fines as of Dec. 31. When a House committee was debating a bill that would ban the cameras in the current session of the Legislature, Associate City Attorney Scott Holmes traveled to Montgomery to argue against it. Holmes cited the revenue Tuscaloosa stood to lose if the cameras were banned, but he did not have accident data available.

"Anecdotally, they think there has been a decrease (in accidents), but to my knowledge, there has not been a study with specific data to that point yet," Holmes later told The News.

Ticket revenue data

The city contracted with a private company, Gatso USA, to install and maintain the cameras. Gatso delivers photos of potential red-light violations to the Tuscaloosa Police Department, which views them to make a final determination and issues citations when merited.

In Tuscaloosa, a ticket generated by a traffic camera costs the vehicle owner $110, with $70 going to the city, $30 to Gatso, and $10 to the state.

Of the 31,380 tickets issued by the city between 2013 and the end of 2017 using the nine cameras at six intersections, 20,189 have been paid. The city's share of that revenue was $1,737,343, Gatso received $645,000, and $215,000 went to the state.

The ticket data was readily available from the city. The accident information — specifically, the number of accidents at each intersection per year — was not. The Tuscaloosa News asked for that information numerous times over several months and received various responses from different departments.

"The request for the number of wrecks at each intersection will be very time-consuming," R. Dunn at the Tuscaloosa Police Department wrote in a response to The News' public information request from September. "I cannot give you a cost estimate because I don't know how much time it will take considering the research and review of accident and any additional associated reports."

In November, Joshua Yates in the city's department of Infrastructure and Public Services said in an email it would take several weeks to gather the data and that it would cost The News $3,500.

Mayor Walt Maddox told The News earlier this month to contact Tera Tubbs, the city's executive director of infrastructure, to discuss data. Via email, Tubbs said her staff would get "some information together."

On Wednesday, however, transportation engineer Jeremy Jones left a voicemail saying the city uses an Alabama Department of Transportation database and could not turn over the information due to an agreement with that agency.

"We're not at liberty to release that data," Jones said.

The News' public information request to ALDOT was denied by William Patty, the department's chief counsel, who sent a memo by email saying the accident information was "privileged, undiscoverable, and inadmissible" in any state or federal court proceeding. He also referred to an exception in the state's open records law that allows withholding information about infrastructure that could be "detrimental to the public safety or welfare," though it was unclear how that would apply to accident data.

Regardless of the statistics, though, safety has been at the forefront of the city's rationale for installing the cameras.

"Red-light running has become an increasing concern with a greater number of crashes that generally involve severe injury and, all too often, fatalities," city traffic engineer David Griffin told The News in 2011. "The automated red-light running enforcement program is an effort to raise awareness about the seriousness of red-light running and the consequences — the sometimes horrible consequences — of having run a red light."

Griffin, who died in 2016, led the effort to install the cameras and kept a close eye on the photo enforcement program.

After his death and the restructuring of city departments in recent years, the city has continued to collect accident data but no one has been compiling and analyzing it, Maddox said.

"It's being monitored in the sense of the tickets are being issued and the system is being looked at...," Maddox said. "That's one of the good things that will come out of this story is it is certainly reminding us that we need to do that."

But Maddox also said he believes the city would know by now whether the cameras were causing more issues than they were solving.

"If there were issues being created due to repeated accidents as a result (of the cameras), that would have surfaced by now," he said. "To my knowledge, we have not had an issue creating any major traffic issues with the city."

Pros and cons of cameras

Traffic enforcement cameras have received mixed reviews around the country over the years. Some cities have installed them, only to later remove them. Other cities have added more cameras. The debate over the cameras usually centers on whether they make intersections safer or cause more accidents. There are conflicting studies on the issue, but polls have shown a majority of drivers are in favor of red-light cameras.

Opponents cite concerns about invasion of privacy and "Big Brother," and say that as municipalities come to rely on the revenue generated by the cameras, safety becomes less of a consideration. They point to studies that show the cameras actually cause accidents, and some cities around the country have actually removed them for that reason, among others.

Opponents also say the private vendors that install and maintain the cameras in most cities have an interest in maximizing the number of tickets issued because they get a share of the revenue, while at the same time the system makes it difficult for ticketed drivers to defend themselves and doesn't allow for a police officer's discretion when extenuating circumstances might apply.

Another argument made by opponents of traffic cameras: The citation is sent to the owner of the vehicle, but what if someone else was driving the car?

Support for traffic cameras focuses on safety and in Tuscaloosa, in particular, red-light running was long perceived to be a problem before they were installed. For city officials the potential to improve safety outweighed any downside to the cameras.

In 2002, the University Transportation Center for Alabama conducted a study for the Alabama Department of Transportation to assess if there was a need for the cameras and whether they were effective.

One of the people involved with the study was Jay Lindly, an engineering professor at the University of Alabama who now serves as the director of the UTCA. The report, which was released in 2003, ultimately encouraged the state to look into using the cameras and that data existed to back up their use.

"The research staff strongly encourages the adoption of automated enforcement of red-light running in Alabama, as a safety countermeasure to mitigate the approximately 5,278 RLR (red-light running) collisions that occur each year, and to reduce the approximately 1,812 Alabama citizens injured and killed each year in these collisions," Lindly said.

As part of the study, the UTCA team studied three intersections for more than a year, with a camera rotated between the intersections, but with no citations issued. The camera detected 13,647 red-light violations out of the nearly 2.73 million cars that passed through the intersections.

Lindly said based on that study and numerous studies done by others, he found red-light cameras did more good than harm.

"When you think about them, you think, 'Why do they have them?' " Lindly said. "Basically, the idea is a safety concern and studies have shown that they reduce the angles of right-end accidents, or T-bone accidents."

However, Lindly and other researchers acknowledged there have been instances when the number of rear-end collisions has increased at intersections that have red-light cameras.

"It doesn't have to always happen, but a lot of times, they find when you put them in, there are an increased number of rear-end collisions because people are worried about the red light, so they have stopped and maybe someone runs into them from behind, but those aren't nearly as severe as the ones that we are trying to prevent," he said.

In 2011, the city's engineering office conducted its own study to assess intersections in Tuscaloosa with the highest number of crashes and collisions. Going through data from 2008 and 2009, the city cited statistics from many intersections, rating the number of crashes, collisions and severity. A few years later, the city assessed the top 20 intersections in terms of crashes.

Both studies were used to decide where to put the cameras.

Placing the cameras

The city picked six intersections for the cameras — Lurleen B. Wallace Boulevard and University Boulevard, McFarland Boulevard and James I. Harrison Jr. Parkway, Skyland Boulevard and McFarland Boulevard, Alabama 69 South and Skyland Boulevard, 15th Street and Dr. Edward Hillard Drive, as well as McFarland Boulevard South and Skyland Boulevard.

The camera that generates the highest number of red-light citations is the one installed in June 2013 at 15th Street East and Dr. Edward Hillard Drive. After a grace period, the city began issuing tickets in September that year. Since then, 8,813 tickets had been issued through 2017 at the intersection.

While the number of citations at some intersections has declined over the years, other intersections' numbers have significantly increased. For example, only 442 citations were issued at the intersection of Skyland Boulevard East and McFarland Boulevard East in 2013, but that number incrementally grew each year, culminating in 1,496 citations issued at that intersection in 2017.

Other intersections that have seen increased numbers of citations include McFarland Boulevard South and James I. Harrison Jr. Parkway (442 citations in 2013 to 1,902 citations in 2017), as well as Lurleen Wallace Boulevard South and University Boulevard (1,085 in 2013 and 1,356 in 2017).

The intersection that has seen the most drastic drop in citations is Skyland Boulevard and McFarland Boulevard, for traffic traveling south on McFarland. Tickets in that direction went from 249 citations in 2014 to 90 in 2017. However, the drop is mostly due to significant construction in that location that year. In 2015 and 2016, the number of violations caught by the camera in that direction was 897 and 707, respectively.

Late last year, the Tuscaloosa City Council decided to use the money the city had received from the citations to buy 46 patrol cars. This was the first time the city had spent any of the camera-generated money. Maddox said moving forward, the city will take an annual look at red-light camera revenue and decide how to spend it.

"We made a decision to invest in public safety," Maddox said. "For us, we did this for a public safety reason and we want to invest it into public safety."

Maddox said the number of citations at the intersections over the years shows the need for the cameras. He said he has never heard from any citizen in any public setting who wanted the cameras removed.

"We've had about roughly 31,000 citations that have been issued since those cameras were put into place, which means that 31,000 times in the last few years, you've had cars go through an intersection after the light has turned red," Maddox said. "I think that in and of itself demonstrates that those who wish to do something that reckless need to be held accountable for it."

Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton, citing the concern that traffic cameras are simply being used to generate revenue, sponsored the bill that would have banned the use of traffic enforcement cameras statewide. The bill did not make it out of committee. Several cities around the state, including Montgomery, Opelika and Fairfield, have installed cameras after getting their own enabling legislation passed.

Maddox said he is against the state government taking away the city's cameras.

"There are some that don't believe that municipalities should have the right of home rule or have the opportunity to leverage technology to make their communities safer," he said.

Traffic enforcement cameras around the country have also withstood court challenges, including Tuscaloosa's.

In 2015, Tuscaloosa County Circuit Court Judge John England ruled in the city's favor in a case involving Northport resident Tim Burch, who received a ticket in 2014 and sued the city over it. Burch's attorneys argued the camera system was unconstitutional because the city is not required to prove who was driving the car before a ticket is issued.

A class-action lawsuit challenging the city's cameras is pending in state court. The lead plaintiff is Shaquoyia Hopkins, whose attorneys, J. Doyle Fuller and Susan Copeland, have filed similar suits in other Alabama cities where red-light cameras are used.

The attorneys argue that the Tuscaloosa law enabling a device to determine a violation conflicts with existing state law that defines a red-light violation. They say that law does not allow for cameras.

At least seven states are trying to ban traffic enforcement cameras. Some have said a third-party vendor being able to take a photo of a person's license plate and their face can present opportunities for an invasion of privacy.

Others have pointed to abuse at intersections where red-light cameras are located. In 2014, the Chicago Tribune published an extensive series of investigative articles about traffic cameras and found that some intersections had shorter yellow light times than those without cameras.

Maddox, however, said traffic cameras alleviate some of the pressure on law enforcement and local governments to keep people safe. The alternative, he said, would be police spending more man hours at different intersections.

"We live in a state that is not funding the basic needs of public safety," he said. "Those needs are pressing upon local governments and if we are going to have to assume these unfunded mandates, I believe it is only fair to allow technology to be able to assist us."

©2018 The Tuscaloosa News, Ala. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.