Boulder, Colo., Against Photo Traffic Enforcement Ban, Says Cameras Make Streets Safer

The city is opposing Senate Bill 14-181 which would ban the use of automated vehicle identification systems, a practice already prohibited in 10 states.

by Joe Rubino, McClatchy News Service / April 21, 2014

Boulder has deployed traffic-enforcement cameras for more than 15 years, and city officials say both moving violations and accidents in camera-monitored intersections have decreased significantly in that time.

With that in mind, Boulder has come out in staunch opposition to a bill currently being heard in the Colorado Legislature that would outlaw photo traffic enforcement across the state.

"Our accidents are down in these intersections 68 percent and our violations have gone down 72 percent," said David Hayes, Boulder's deputy police chief. "What those numbers tell us is we're getting our message across."

Hayes was among about a dozen law enforcement representatives from around Colorado who testified in Denver this week against Senate Bill 14-181.

The bipartisan bill would ban the use of automated vehicle identification systems, a practice already prohibited in 10 states.

Carl Castillo, a policy adviser in the Boulder city manager's office, said the City Council had given clear policy direction to oppose the bill.

"There is a fundamental local control element," he said, calling the bill a broad-brush dismissal of an effective tool. "The recourse is to go to elected officials and vote them out of office if they are abusing it in your community."

Boulder is the only municipality in the county to use photo traffic enforcement.

Eight Boulder intersections are equipped with photo red-light cameras, placed between 1998 and 2012 based on accident data.

The city also runs two photo-radar vans that are dispatched to various residential areas to bust speeders. Hayes said those are positioned mainly based on the volume of neighborhood complaints about people driving too fast.

Program Generates Modest Profit

The bill's supporters say they believe the cameras do not enhance public safety and are primarily used by municipalities to generate revenue.

But according to data from Boulder, photo traffic enforcement generates a modest profit most years, peaking with the $317,912 that was added to the city's general fund in 2011.

The program has cost the city money six years between 1998 and 2013, most recently leaving a $62,811 deficit in 2012, according to city officials.

On average, Boulder makes about $40,000 per year on its combined photo enforcement activities, according to the city, and — as Hayes pointed out — that is before "soft costs" such a copying, electricity and telephone service.

"It was never about money for us," Hayes said. "What it does is protect people in those intersections."

In 2013, city officials said, the photo-radar vans led to 13,498 speeding tickets, and the photo red-light cameras led to another 15,933 tickets.

Safer Intersections

City research indicates the eight camera-equipped intersections are much safer since the technology has been in use.

In the three years prior to a camera being installed at northbound 28th Street and Canyon Boulevard, the intersection averaged 2.35 accidents per year, according to the city. Since the installation of a camera there, that average has dropped to 0.

Overall, the eight areas combined to average 21.05 accidents annually pre-cameras, and 6.78 per-year with the equipment in place.

Similarly, an average 174 red-light tickets were issued per day before the cameras were installed, and that number has since dropped to an average of 49 per day.

Hayes noted that it is harder to gauge the success of photo-radar vans, outside of the observations of the civilian police employees who staff them every day.

Still, he notes their presence — and the $40 speeding tickets they issue — is cost-effective.

"This is a more financially feasible way to slow people down," he said.

The bill was passed in an informal vote of the State Senate on Thursday. A formal vote will be required before it moves to the State House.

'The Human Element'

On Boulder's Twenty Ninth Street mall Friday, city residents had mixed feelings on the use of photo traffic enforcement.

"I would absolutely support that," Denis Day said of the bill, noting she has been caught by traffic cameras several times in Denver. "I don't think that it's an effective way to penalize people for breaking a traffic law.

"For one, you usually don't even know you did it at the time and, two, my husband got a ticket when he was behind someone who ran the red light," she added. "It takes the human element out of law enforcement."

Melanie Yee said she is neutral on the use of photo traffic enforcement, having never gotten a photo ticket, but believes the technology serves a purpose.

"It's either that or you just pay cops to sit there and bust people," she said. "I'm not sure what's more cost-effective."

©2014 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.)