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Red Light Cameras Arrive in Spring: Bellingham Joins 24 Other Cities in Washington With Cameras


January 2011

Cover Story

Red Light Cameras Arrive in Spring: Bellingham Joins 24 Other Cities in Washington With Cameras

by Jennifer Karchmer

Jennifer Karchmer is an investigative journalist in Bellingham. She is serving as the editor of Whatcom Watch.

Beginning April 1, motorists in Bellingham can expect to see traffic cameras at six locations that have been pinpointed as areas with high instances of speeding in school zones or vehicles running red lights. The first 30 days is an amnesty period where violators will receive warning tickets.

In December, Mayor Dan Pike signed an ordinance that gives the city authority to begin a one-year pilot program installing what are known as Automated Traffic Safety Cameras. Bellingham joins 24 other communities in Washington that have traffic cameras detecting cars that run red lights. Eleven of those communities also have approved cameras that detect speeding in school zones (see page 9).

City Council Approves 6-1

When the City Council voted on the camera ordinance on Nov. 23, Councilman Seth Fleetwood was the lone opposer saying it was a “tough decision.” Ultimately, Fleetwood voted against it saying, “Do we want to live in a place with cameras?”

Meantime, Councilman Stan Snapp said the use of cameras is warranted since cameras are becoming ubiquitous in public anyway. Other councilmen emphasized the city is trying out the program and will review its success in one year. At that time, the council will consider whether to continue the cameras and the possibility of installing them in other locations.

Behavior Modification

The Bellingham Police Department began exploring the use of traffic safety cameras in mid-2008, said Deputy Chief Flo Simon. They have reviewed camera programs in Lakewood, Lynnwood and Seattle and discussed other enforcement equipment such as the Opticom, the portable monitor that measures speed and depicts in large lights a motorist’s mph (sometimes seen on Eldridge Ave.).

In a PowerPoint presentation to the City Council on Sept. 27, City of Bellingham Police Lt. Scott Snider outlined the benefits of traffic safety cameras explaining they are “designed to modify behavior.”

Based on traffic studies in conjunction with the Bellingham Public Works Department, the Police Department came up with four locations for traffic cameras to detect red-light running: westbound on Holly Street at N. Forest Street; northbound on Ellis Street at Lakeway Drive; northbound on Meridian Street and Telegraph Road; and southbound on Samish Way at 36th Street, near Sehome Village.

The police cite one instance where they observed 30 red-light running violations in a 7.2-hour period in one day at the Holly and N. Forest streets intersection near the Community Food Co-op (see “Bellingham Police: Automated Traffic Safety Camera FAQ”). “I drive down that street twice a day every day, and someone passes me going through a red light,” Deputy Chief Simon added.

Bellingham Police then identified two school zones for speed cameras: near Shuksan Middle School at the southbound 3400 block of Northwest Avenue at Alderwood Ave., and near Roosevelt Elementary School at the westbound 2400 block of Alabama Street at Yew Street.

Arizona Company

Bellingham is hiring American Traffic Solutions (ATS) based in Scottsdale, Ariz., the private company that installs and maintains the cameras, administers tickets and accepts payments from violators. The contract was being circulated among city officials on Dec. 16 and was expected to be signed by the end of 2010.

With contracts in 240 communities in 22 states, including large cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., the company contends that safety cameras increase the perception of enforcement, which in turn means safer streets with fewer red-light violations and related crashes.

“We are confident that after implementing road safety technology, red-light running violations will drop, drivers will operate their vehicles more carefully and traffic safety will improve in Bellingham,” Charles Territo, Vice President of Communications for ATS, said in a statement via email.

In December 2011, the city will re-evaluate the program using about eight months’ worth of data generated from the six intersections. Bellingham Police did not have statistics designed specifically as a baseline by which the camera program would be evaluated.

Cost

While some contend the installation of traffic cameras is only a money-maker for the city, the police department maintains that the cameras are an enforcement tool. “We have limited resources,” Deputy Chief Simon said. “We have to do more with less so if this frees up officers to handle more 911 calls, that’s a good thing.” She added that camera detection keeps traffic enforcement officers safer preventing them from having to speed through intersections to catch violators.

In terms of cost, the traffic cameras are considered “violator-funded” rather than “taxpayer-funded.” ATS takes care of the upfront installation costs and Bellingham is not responsible for payment until tickets are being issued and violators are paying fines.

The equipment and service costs $4,750 per location per month, which is $28,500. According to Bellingham Police estimates, the system needs to generate only two paid violations per day per location to cover the cost per month. The ATS contract stipulates that the city is not responsible for any shortfall if the system does not generate enough revenue to pay for a camera at a particular location.

Voice of the Public

After hearing the Bellingham Police presentation on Sept. 27, the council agreed to hold a public hearing since the topic generated a great deal of public feedback both for and against the traffic cameras. A few days later, the council voted to cancel the public meeting citing two cases: the Western Washington University student who, at the time, was reported missing and a car accident that killed a two-year-old girl. The public hearing was not rescheduled.

Fleetwood said the cancellation was “a bad move.”

“We offered to do a public hearing, and then retracted it,” Fleetwood said. “That violates an expectation,” by the public.

In a phone interview on Dec. 6, Councilman Gene Knutson said the council had culled enough materials and testimony to make an informed decision on the camera proposal without a public hearing. Additionally, he said announcing a public hearing and then cancelling was “messy” but not against city policy.

Apparently, a municipality is not required to hold a public hearing before passing an ordinance, according to Washington state law RCW 42.30.060. In some instances such as plats and subdivisions, a public hearing may be required and is outlined in the specific statute, as explained by Shane Brady, an assistant city attorney in the Bellingham City Attorney’s office.

Mukilteo’s Initiative

Voters in Mukilteo however had a different story in November when they approved an initiative that actually requires the city to hold a public vote before installing traffic safety cameras. Additionally, the initiative says fines are to be limited to those associated with the lowest parking ticket, which is $20.

Bellingham chose to associate the red-light running ticket with parking in a handicap zone, which carries a $124 fine, according to Deputy Chief Simon. For speeding in a school zone, the ticket is $124 when the vehicle is 5 to 9 mph over the limit, and $250 for 10 mph over the limit.

How It Works

When a vehicle runs a red light or is detected speeding at one of the intersections, the video equipment is triggered capturing about 12 seconds of footage including the vehicle’s license plate. State law stipulates that the camera may take pictures only from the rear of the vehicle and never the faces of the driver or passengers. Electronic images may not be used for any other purpose and must not be retained longer than necessary to enforce the violation.

The cameras are always in operation but capturing footage only when they are triggered by a vehicle in violation, according to Deputy Chief Simon.

Images and video are reviewed by ATS and then a Bellingham Police officer trained on the equipment affirms each violation. If you receive a notice, you can make the payment to ATS or appeal. If you were not the driver of the vehicle, you can contest it in writing.

A ticket generated by the traffic cameras is processed as a “civil infraction” similar to a parking ticket. This is different from a notice of infraction, which occurs when a police officer pulls over a driver accused of running a red light or speeding in a school zone. The notice of infraction is reported to the driver’s auto insurance; the civil infraction is not.

Do They Work?

Studies conducted by ATS and other private companies show that camera installation creates safer streets. However, independent studies and those done by news organizations have shown an increase in accidents at intersections where cameras have been installed (see Additional Information).

Meantime, at least seven states have banned red-light cameras, including Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Wisconsin, according to Anne Teigen, a transportation specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. §

For Additional Information

• American Traffic Solutions: http://www.atsol.com/services-public-safety-red-light.html

• “Communities put a halt to red-light cameras,” USA Today, Jan. 18, 2010.

• Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: http://www.iihs.org/research/qanda/rlr.html

• “New Analysis Shows More Crashes at Chicago Intersections With Red Light Cameras,” June 7, 2010, http://www.MyFoxChicago.com.

• “Red-Light Cameras Haven’t Cut Crashes,” The Palm Beach (FL) Post, May 25, 2010.

• US Dept. of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Intersection Safety Issue Briefs, Issue Brief 6, Engineering Countermeasures to Reduce Red-Light Running, November 2009, FHWA-SA-10-005.

• Washington State Definition: “Automated Traffic Safety Cameras,” Washington State Legislature, RCW 46.63.170.


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