Under the Big Eyes
By Elise Kaplan
As the city plays a game of red light, green light with intersection cameras, voters will have their say during the Tuesday, Oct. 4 elections. Public opinion will be taken into account, but in the end the fate of the red-light cameras rests with the City Council. The vote will be considered “advisory,” yet councilors will be hard-pressed to ignore your advice.
Since red-light cameras began fining scofflaws in 2004, the program has faced setbacks, go-aheads, community ire and seals of approval. Whether you support the program, hate it or just wish we could stop talking about it, the ballot wants to know. We think the process of contesting the tickets sucks. You don’t go before a judge, you go before a city employee. The Alibi’s editorial board will be voting “nay” on this one.
So How Did We Get Here?
By April 2007, the city had installed cameras at 20 of the most dangerous intersections for fatalities and traffic crashes in Albuquerque. Nineteen of them were on the list of the most dangerous intersections in New Mexico from 2003 to 2005.
But it turns out, the cameras weren't just about red lights. Yellow lights played a big part, too. Jim Villanucci, the KKOB 770 AM radio talk-show host , took the lights to task at intersections throughout the city. Though a study by the Institute of Transportation Engineers recommends roughly five-second-long yellows at larger intersections, Villanucci's stopwatch hovered above the three-second mark. He said the shortened yellow window meant extra tickets—and extra profits—for the city. Mark Motsko, the spokesperson for the Department of Municipal Development refuted the talk-show host's claim, saying the yellow lights were timed for four seconds.
"While the true safety impact of the use of these cameras is still murky at best, one thing has become clear to the Commission—more and more New Mexico cities seem to be putting driver-generated revenues ahead of sound traffic management techniques; frankly, that concept really troubles me."
-Johnny Cope, State Transportation Commission chairman, in 2010
In 2010, the State Transportation Commission ruled red-light cameras had to be removed from state and federal roads. That included three Albuquerque intersections, reducing the city’s number to 17. "There seems to be many competing studies out there that make confusing claims about the efficacy of the devices currently in use," Chairman Johnny Cope said in a news release. “While the true safety impact of the use of these cameras is still murky at best, one thing has become clear to the Commission—more and more New Mexico cities seem to be putting driver-generated revenues ahead of sound traffic management techniques; frankly, that concept really troubles me."
UNM’s Institute for Social Research reviewed several traffic studies and reports, as well as costs associated with crashes. The Red Light Study found that while crashes resulting in injury decreased in the intersections with cameras, rear-end and fender-bender crashes increased.
The study recommended a restructuring of the intersections, since some saw a reduction in crashes and others saw the opposite or no effect. In response to the study, the city implemented a number of changes to the program. Speeding violations were dropped from the cameras’ workload, yellow- and red-light times were adjusted, and three ineffective intersections lost their lenses. Plus, more signage was added to make drivers aware of the cameras.
The City Council has turned the cameras off twice in the past year while it negotiated with Redflex, the Arizona-based company that maintains them. Drivers were given the chance to put their pedals to the metal most recently in May, as the cameras went dark while councilors debated the future of the contract. They reinstated the program for another year in June through a 7-2 vote. Under the renewed contract, Redflex agreed to cover costs if the cameras fail to pay for themselves. Each violation comes with a $75 fine, and the revenue is split between the company, city and state.
About 73 cam-generated citations are mailed out each month, and they constitute roughly one-third of Albuquerque’s moving violations.
Mayor Berry supports the red-light cameras. In a statement, he said his administration has taken steps to make intersections safer without putting any strain on taxpayers.
Opponents of the red-light cameras see it differently and say the program does little more than raise revenue for Redflex. Some even argue that the cameras make intersections less safe. In a June guest column to the Albuquerque Journal, Councilors Michael Cook and Dan Lewis cited an Ontario Ministry of Transportation study: Intersections with cameras saw a 4.9 percent increase in fatal and injury rear-end crashes, as well as a 49.9 percent increase in property damage. Lewis was instrumental is pushing for the councilors to open the issue up for public vote.
So have your say on election day. Albuquerque drivers, councilors—and Redflex—await your verdict.
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