Sunday, Mar. 17, 2013
As red-light citations drop, speeders may be Kansas Citys next target
By LYNN HORSLEY
The Kansas City Star
Four years after Kansas City installed red-light cameras, ever fewer drivers trip the flashes that can make them see red when they get a ticket in the mail.
Fresh numbers show red-light camera citations tumbled more than 20 percent from 2011 to 2012, and fell 35 percent from 2010, when the program was still in its infancy.
“Exactly what they’re designed to do is change behavior, and they are,” said Councilman John Sharp, chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, which monitors traffic control in the city.
In fact, the city is thinking about moving some of its robotic photographers, adding even more and possibly even deploying other cameras to catch you speeding.
That could mean more reason for Kansas City drivers to hit their brakes. The city’s look at cameras to catch speeders, still preliminary, is likely to draw the same kind of controversy as the cameras patrolling red-light runners.
In some cities, the speed cameras have resulted in tens of millions of dollars in fines, as speeding violations far exceed red light violations.
Yet the success of the red-light cameras also offers evidence of the power of high-tech traffic tools.
“We have areas where it is difficult to deal with traffic and speeding situations, such as school zones and construction zones,” said Councilman Scott Wagner, who is pushing for more information. “Trying to access technology to deal with another issue made some sense.”
The city has set the deadline for Tuesday for companies to provide more information on how their speed camera programs might work for Kansas City.
Wagner emphasized no decision has been made, but he is intrigued with the possibilities.
“This is merely one step,” he said.
City officials say the red-light cameras show technology can crack down on risky driving.
The city contracted with Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions in 2008 to install cameras. The company’s five-year contract is up June 30, but it’s expected to be renewed. The first camera began taking its incriminating pictures in early 2009 at 39th Street and Southwest Trafficway. ATS finished installing 29 cameras at 17 intersections by Aug. 1, 2009.
The program peaked in August 2009 with more than 11,000 citations, but the numbers then dropped to 4,000 by December 2009. The overall trend continues downward. The annual total has dropped from more than 50,000 in 2010 to 33,150 in 2012.
City officials have always insisted the program is about safety, not money.
But its way to safety is through the threat of fines. Each ticket is $100. The city recorded $3.5 million in revenue in the most recent fiscal year, down from nearly $4.7 million in fiscal year 2010.
ATS gets a flat $1.6 million per year. That means the city has netted about $2 million per year since the program began.
In a recent look at violations, police said the percentage of nonresidents getting citations was increasing, while the percentage of residents being fined was dropping.
“People who live here and drive those routes have figured it out,” said Steve Glorioso, a political consultant and Kansas City liaison to ATS.
And that’s a good thing, says Lowell Gard, city prosecutor.
“It’s an expected drop,” Gard said of the decline in violations, especially among city residents. “It’s worked better than I ever thought it would.”
The decline in Kansas City violations comes as no surprise to Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va.
“That’s exactly the goal,” she said. “You want people not running red lights.”
She said national research shows red-light cameras reduce right-angle crashes that can cause injury or death. The most recent Kansas City police analysis of red-light cameras, released in May 2012, also found that wrecks caused by red-light running had declined. It found rear-end wrecks had increased two years after the cameras were installed but blamed driver inattention rather than the cameras.
Kansas City is now considering changing some camera locations, something McCartt said several communities across the country do periodically.
“What you’re looking for is the deterrent effect,” she said. “If drivers aren’t sure where the cameras are going to be, the effect will be stronger not just where they are but at other intersections.”
Kansas City public works officials first considered adding between nine and 13 new locations and possibly moving two to four cameras last year, according to Greg Rokos, assistant public works director.
But the process stalled while the city and ATS reviewed various intersections. The City Council also decided it needed to update its red-light camera ordinance to match a law that had been affirmed by the Missouri Court of Appeals.
The City Council’s new ordinance, adopted last November, made the process more equitable, Sharp said, by making it clear that companies can be fined just as well as individual drivers if their vehicle runs a red light.
So Sharp said it’s now time for the city to consider moving or adding cameras, especially since some cameras catch fewer than 20 violators per month.
“There are some locations where you just don’t have the traffic volume to justify them,” he said. “There are some other high-crash locations that don’t have them.”
The city has a list of 31 potential locations, primarily from the Northland to Midtown, but has made no decisions. Many of the locations are on boulevards, and the parks board would have to approve them. Any new locations would require signs and notification before the cameras are installed.
After looking at the red-light camera program, Wagner decided it was worth exploring speed cameras. They’re used in 124 communities in the United States, including in Sugar Creek and a few other Missouri cities.
They’re not nearly as common as red-light cameras, which patrol intersections in more than 530 communities. But the Insurance Institute’s McCartt said they are common in Europe, and studies have shown they can slow people who are driving more than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit.
Wagner said he’s had enough complaints from constituents that he wanted to pursue the idea. An initial Kansas City police report said the idea was worthy of further consideration, although it raised concerns about potential personnel costs and legal issues.
Wagner said he expects information from at least three companies by Tuesday’s deadline and hopes a study group can make a decision on whether to proceed with any speed camera enforcement program by this summer.
He has no illusions that the program would be free from controversy.
“I’m always bracing for a backlash,” he said. “When red-light cameras came in, there was a lot of discussion. I expect the same discussion, and rightfully so.”
At least one other council member, Jan Marcason, said she and many of her constituents would be interested.
“I think along Brookside Boulevard, they (neighbors) would love that,” she said. “People act like that’s a race track.”