On Christmas Eve, I did a stupid thing. I was making a left turn at a photo-stop intersection
, was behind a car that had a higher profile than I did and when the car turned out of my line of sight, realized that I was going to go through the red. Either that, or slam on my brakes not knowing what was behind me (turns out from the pictures an SUV). I went through, and about 7 days later received my red-light camera fine in the mail.
I decided to attend a hearing simply because I felt that I needed to explain my actions. Perhaps they would let me out of the ticket, after all it was my first auto incident in nearly 20 years so I am not a habitual offender. I was also hoping that if I had to pay a fine I could do community service, which is not offered as an option on the mail-in payment. I consider community service a much better way of paying for my offense than simply writing a check.
Yesterday, I went down to the Office of Administrative Hearings
, Room 2, to have my hearing at 10:00. I was met by a nice and chipper woman from the city who was going to the same room and turned out to be the administrator who would decide my case. The experience was short, if not sweet. An officer was there running a projector with photos and video captured by the cameras, and to provide testimony as to what was caught on the video. There were about 5 other people in the room, one woman with her son and the rest men, most of whom had red-light violations, except for one guy who had three speeding violations. The nice administrator explained that none of the violations would be reported, and that the hearing would consist of the officer providing testimony about the violation, then we would have a chance to question the officer and provide our testimony, and then the administrator would make a ruling. We would then have the option to pay the fine within 35 days (no court costs added) or sign up for community service.
They took care of the speeding case first. Of his three violations, two were for $150 and one for $200. The officer said that they would be willing to dismiss the $200 ticket if he paid the other two. He said that since the incident, he had stopped driving, was now taking the bus to work, and hoped that he might only pay one of the $150 tickets. They eventually agreed with him to drop the two $150 fines, leaving him to pay the $200 fine.
Next came the woman, who hadn't seen her video. After viewing and the officer's testimony, she agreed that she wen through the light and the administrator ruled an offense had occurred. She was offered fine or community service. Then another guy was called, and after viewing the video the same judgment was made. He said that he was on the way to the hospital because his mother had a heart attack, but since he did not bring any document from the doctor stating this was the case, the administrator couldn't let him off - she would have with proper documentation of a medical emergency.
Then came my turn. We viewed the video, the officer made his testimony, then I asked him whether the height of the traffic signal combined with the high profile of the car in front of me could have impeded my view of the light. He said he could not tell from the video. I then gave my reasons, and the administrator ruled that an offense occurred. I then gathered my paperwork and walked down to the office, where I signed up for community service alongside the woman and the man who had gone previously. In 10-14 days I will get a letter from an organization and I will work out with them my days and hours of service.
Short and sweet and not that difficult. I didn't even get to present all the research I had done on red-light cameras to prepare for what I thought might be a Perry Mason moment. But, given that red light cameras have been a topic of conversation on this site before, I wanted to present it somewhere. My disclaimer here is that I am not trying to justify my own actions and I have agreed to pay for them. I was clearly aware that I went through a red light. The reason I did the research was I wanted to see if my fear of slamming on my brakes because I might get hit from behind was a valid fear. As you'll see, red light cameras appear to have both positives and negatives going for them.
Turns out my fear was reasonably justified. There is a website that lists most of the research on red-light cameras in various cities around the US, Canada and Australia at a driving-oriented news-site called The Newspaper.Com
. You can download complete studies or executive summaries. I looked at complete reports because I'm a statistics geek and like looking at how they did things.
There are about 10 reports available. If one looks at all the reports combined, the following conclusions can be gleaned from them:
1. Most of the studies show that red-light cameras have reduced red-light running at those intersections where the cameras have been placed.
2. There are mixed results about whether red-light cameras have effects on accident occurrences at intersections where they are placed. Some have shown an increase in overall accidents, others an increase in some kinds of accidents such as rear-end collisions, but a decrease in other types of accidents, such as right-angle collisions.
3. Nearly all of the studies show a significant increase in rear-end collisions, both of the non-injury and injury variety. It is widely thought that these collisions occur because people try to avoid going through the red light and then brake suddenly, causing cars behind them to hit them. In a 2007 Virginia Department of Transportation study, the increase was anywhere from 27 to 42 percent depending on the statistical method used.
4. Because of the increase in rear-end collisions at such intersections, overall insurance claims for accidents at such intersections show a significant increase.
5. The 2005 Winnipeg, Canada report shows that even though red-light running and crashes are down at photo-intersections, overall instances throughout the city including non-photo intersections are about the same, indicating that there seems to be no change in driving habit that is filtering to the rest of the city.
In 2005, a US Federal Highways Administration was skeptical of the reports that had been issued to that point by the states and did its own study.
. Using different methodology, they found that right angle crashes at camera intersections decreased, but there was a significant increase in rear-end crashes. However, contrary to other reports, they found an overall decrease in crash costs at such intersections.
So, in terms of safety, it appears that red-light cameras are a mixed bag. A 2004 Texas Transportation Institute Study found ways to reduce both infractions and accidents at red-light camera intersections. These include:
a. Posting signs before the intersections telling motorists that they are photo-enforced
b. Increasing the visibility of traffic lights. Improved visibility yields a 25% reduction in violations.
c. Lengthening the duration of yellow lights. They found that a 1 second decrease in the duration of the yellow light increased infractions by 110%, while lengthening the yellow by 1 second decreased infractions by 53%.
d. They also found that most tickets for violations are being issued for infractions that occur less than a second, and in many cases less than a half-second after the light has turned red. However, the overwhelming majority of red-light collisions (at photo-enforced and non-photo enforced intersections combined) are right-angle crashes and occur 5 seconds or more after the light has changed red. Therefore, tickets are being written for split-second violations where there are usually no crashes.
So it appears red-light cameras are a mixed bag. I suppose what disturbs me about these reports ties in to past debates on this topic at the DCF. Many people commented here that if you just stop at red lights, then you have no problem. However, if there is a significant increase in rear-end crashes, then even if you are trying to obey the law at these intersections, you may be at a greater risk, and if you make the decision to go through the red in the split second after it turns because you are concerned about slamming on your breaks, then you are going to be fined regardless of whether it turned out to be the safest option or not. There may also be an associated cost to individual insurance, if you get hit, and perhaps even insurance rates altogether due to increased accident occurrences.
As for the intersection I was ticketed at (I was making a left turn from westbound Lomas onto southbound Eubank), there are no signs on Lomas warning of the cameras at the intersection, the yellow light duration on the left-turn signal is about 3 seconds, the absolute minimum recommended length by the Institute of Traffic Engineers. My ticket was issued because I entered the intersection 0.22 seconds after the light turned red (I was traveling 20 miles per hour at the time). The left-turn signal itself is set on a pole across the six-lane intersection and is about 12 feet high from the ground to the base of the light - whereas the through-traffic signal is mounted on a pole, overhangs the street and is at least twice as high. Thus, if you are behind a large vehicle turning left and you aren't in a large vehicle yourself, your line of sight of the signal can be easily obscured.
I'm not complaining, and will do my 10 hours of community service and know that because of my mistake, I will at least be contributing to the overall good of Albuquerque as a consequence. But I found all of these things interesting and relevant as we continue to debate the utility of the cameras in our city.