Lights … camera … ticket?
Motorists at four intersections in Hamilton and Middle townships soon could face penalties for running a red light even if no police officers are at the scene.
The two townships have submitted applications to the state Department of Transportation to install red-light cameras at their heaviest intersections and send summonses to motorists caught committing violations on camera.
The intersections include:
- Routes 9 and 47 in the Rio Grande section of Middle Township
- Route 9 and Stone Harbor Boulevard in the Cape May Court House section of Middle Township
- Wrangleboro Road and Route 322 in Hamilton Township
- Wrangleboro Road and the Atlantic City Expressway entrance in Hamilton Township.
Both townships have investigated the issue and have signed an agreement with American Traffic Solutions Inc., a national company that will install and monitor the cameras. The company will receive money from fines paid by violators. The townships will not pay for the program.
Red-light cameras have been controversial and the subject of lawsuits across the country. Some communities — including Los Angeles this July — disbanded the program due to a lack of effectiveness and high costs. However, they and other states used a different model than what is being used in New Jersey.
The local townships are following a new model established by the state, which started using red-light cameras in 2009, DOT spokesman Tim Greeley said. The department authorized 25 municipalities to operate the cameras under the Red Light Running Automated Enforcement pilot program, which will last for five years, he said.
“(The department) realized the importance of developing a comprehensive program to ensure that at the completion of the five years we would have an appropriate amount of statistical data for a long-term decision to be made on red-light cameras in New Jersey,” he said.
At this point, no towns Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland or southern Ocean counties are using red-light cameras. Towns in South Jersey that are have the cameras include Glassboro, Monroe and Deptford townships in Gloucester County and Cherry Hill, Gloucester Township and Stratford in Camden County. In 2014, the state will decide if it wants to expand the program.
Reviewing the data
Red-light cameras have been used in 24 states across the country, the state DOT said. The local police chiefs have reviewed the program’s strengths and weaknesses in other states and say they believe the cameras are a good idea for their townships.
Hamilton Chief Stacy Tappeiner said he reviewed statistics that show the cameras would reduce side-impact crashes, which are the most dangerous. In the short term, the program may increase rear-end accidents because motorists may stop short at red lights, but they would be less inclined to drive through red lights and cause the more severe side-impact crashes, Tappeiner said.
The department used internal data that determined most red-light violations occur at Wrangleboro Road and the Expressway, he said.
“It’s a useful tool. We’ll be able to review running of red lights without putting an officer out there,” he said. “It’s controversial, no question. We’ll take advantage of the technology to help law-enforcement officers.”
An officer will review the video of all violations and each case will be reviewed to determine whether it’s a violation, Tappeiner said. Some states have not had an officer review each infraction.
“We’ll make sure if it’s approved, people will know it’s out there,” Tappeiner said.
Deputy Mayor Charles Cain said the cameras also can help the township’s Police Department, which lost 13 positions this year due to budget cuts. The township does not have plans to expand to additional intersections, he said.
“I see it as testing two intersections in the township to see if, in fact, we can improve safety,” Cain said. “We’re trying to take advantage of advancements in technology to accomplish the same thing without having a depreciating asset (by having an officer stopped at the intersection).”
Middle Township Police Chief Christopher Leusner said that after reviewing different strategies and talking to residents, the department believes the cameras will increase safety and reduce accidents and injuries.
American Traffic Solutions surveyed intersections for a week and found 70 violations in the Rio Grande intersection in an eight-hour period, he said. The officers will give violations for reckless behavior such as running a red light or turning right on a red without stopping, Leusner said.
The cameras also could make the department more efficient, he said.
“If we had an officer at the intersection, it would take 20 to 30 minutes per violation,” he said, noting the officer would have to pull over the driver, take and look up his information and then write a ticket.
The program has come under fire in other areas because residents claimed they did not know about the cameras at the intersection. Leusner said residents will be informed if the cameras are implemented.
“We’ve done a very aggressive push to get information out to the public,” he said. “The majority of residents in Middle Township will know the cameras are there.”
Jenny Robinson, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said rear-end crashes do increase at some intersections with red-light cameras but that is not common place at all intersections with red-light cameras. Philadelphia has 14 red-light cameras and the number of accidents has declined in the majority of them, she said. Some intersections where the number of accidents increased could be due to an increase in traffic volume or changes in the traffic patterns, she said.
“Sometimes it’s hard to gauge on the data because there may be other factors at work,” she said.
Stopping the cameras
A Jan. 5, 2009, ruling by the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals states that, “No one has a fundamental right to run a red light or avoid being seen by a camera on a public street.”
In 2003, Chicago began installing red-light cameras to crack down on illegal turns. A lawsuit was filed stating it violated the residents’ rights for due process, but the court ruled that argument was a “dud.”
“The interest at stake is a $90 fine for a traffic infraction, and the Supreme Court has never held that a property interest so modest is a fundamental right,” the court ruled.
The national Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study concludes the cameras have reduced the rate of fatal crashes by 24 percent in 14 cities that introduced them between 1996 and 2004.
But the program has its critics.
In July, Los Angeles decided to shut down its traffic-enforcement cameras because the program the city used cost it $1.5 million a year.
The program has ticketed more than 180,000 drivers since 2004, but the city had problems with people responding to the citations and paying their tickets. The tickets could not be issued to the owner of the car if he was not driving the vehicle at the time of the infraction. The owner also did not have to tell the court who was driving the vehicle.
But that will not be an issue for New Jersey towns.
Lt. John Edwards, of the Middle Township Police Department, said the state passed a statute that makes the owner of the car responsible for any infractions.
“It would work like a parking ticket,” he said.
There have been lawsuits in other states, such as Florida and Wisconsin, that argue the cameras are unconstitutional. The City Council of Lakeland, Fla., voted earlier this month to pay $667,965 to settle a class action suit against the municipality over the cameras. Other lawsuits in Florida have alleged the cameras violated their rights because it presumed the drivers to be guilty and in some instances were not in compliance with local traffic laws.
The New Jersey Public Interest Research Group released a study Thursday that warned municipalities about entering into contracts with private companies. The report stated the companies are more influenced by profits than safety and that many of the towns have had difficulty or faced penalties when terminating the contracts.
“Too many cities wrongly sign away power to ensure the safety of citizens on the roads when they privatize traffic law enforcement,” group advocate Jen Kim said in the report. “Automated traffic ticketing tends to be governed by contracts that focus more on profits than safety.”
The nonprofit advocacy organization said lengthening yellow lights was a far better alternative to stop people from running red lights. The contracts also should avoid any incentives for vendors that are based on the volume of tickets, the report states.
Cape May Court House resident Kathleen Pendlebury is concerned that so many communities across the country had issues with the system. If the intersections are such a concern, there should be more police at the site, she said.
“My main issue is it’s a for-profit company. They are not a safety company,” she said of American Traffic Solutions. “It’s a real bad ‘gotcha’ company that’s for profit, not safety.”
Hamilton Committeeman Roger Silva opposed the application for the cameras.
“I don’t want to raise revenues on the backs of residents, shoppers, or visitors to the township,” he said. “I’m not against public safety. I’m not sure, ultimately, it’s the best place for it.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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