Pittsburgh considers red-light cameras

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Pittsburgh City Council is scheduled to vote today on whether to join more than 500 other U.S. cities that use automated cameras to catch drivers who run red lights.

So far in Pennsylvania, only Philadelphia has them. Abington, a suburban community north of Philadelphia, expects to install cameras early next year.

While the cameras are controversial, studies have shown that they reduce red-light running and serious crashes. The Pennsylvania State Transportation Advisory Committee reported in 2011 that Philadelphia's cameras had reduced red-light running by 48 percent and crashes by 24 percent at the intersections where they were installed.

"While some aspects of [the Philadelphia program's] impact on safety remain inconclusive, it is clear that there are substantial overall safety benefits from the program," the committee said.

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The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent research organization supported by insurers, concluded that cameras reduced fatal crashes caused by red-light running by 24 percent, and all fatal accidents at signaled intersections by 17 percent.

Opponents say the cameras are a money-making scheme, and actually cause crashes when drivers slam on the brakes to avoid the chance of a citation.

"Some but not all studies have found increases in rear-end fender-benders. It's not a consistent finding," said Russ Rader, senior vice president for communications at the insurance institute. "The bottom line is that rear-enders tend to be fender-bender crashes. Research shows they are more than offset by [a reduction in] right-angle and T-bone crashes, the kinds of crashes that kill and injure people."

A study of red-light camera programs in seven cities, sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration, showed that rear-end collisions increased by 15 percent while more serious right-angle crashes decreased by 25 percent.

The automated systems use mounted cameras that are connected to traffic signals and pavement sensors. If a driver enters an intersection while the signal is red, the system takes a photograph of the car's license plate and a citation is generated and mailed.

Pittsburgh's legislation calls for a $100 civil penalty for violations, with no points assessed. The violations are not added to a driver's record and will not affect insurance coverage.

The penalty is assessed against the registered owner of a vehicle, regardless of who is driving, but allows for appeal hearings at which the owner can offer evidence that he or she wasn't operating the vehicle at the time of the violation. The owner cannot be compelled by the city to reveal who was driving.

Revenue generated by the citations, after deducting operating and administrative expenses, goes to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which will use it for a competitive grant program for local governments.

PennDOT must approve each location for red-light cameras. Intersections must have conspicuous signs warning drivers of the cameras. No penalties can be assessed for 60 days after the first intersection is camera-equipped, and for 30 days for each subsequent intersection.

Philadelphia's program, which dates to 2005, has cameras at 24 intersections. Citations generated $17.8 million for the year ended March 31. After paying operating and administrative expenses, the city's parking authority sent nearly $9.6 million to PennDOT for the grant program.

Cities cannot alter the PennDOT-approved yellow light intervals. A Florida TV station reported this year that its investigation found that several localities in the Sunshine State had shortened the duration of yellow lights, causing an increase in violations. The state's transportation department ordered the durations lengthened.

Red-light systems typically place a pavement sensor at the stop line before the intersection, so a vehicle that has entered the intersection before the light changes to red is not photographed. Some systems build in an additional grace period of up to a half-second, Mr. Rader said.

In Pittsburgh's system, all citations would be reviewed by a police officer before being sent out. Those cited can appeal within 30 days.

The insurance institute said 714 people were killed and an estimated 118,000 injured in crashes caused by red-light running in 2011.

Cameras clearly are reducing red-light running in the City of Brotherly Love. A review of citation data from nine intersections along notoriously dangerous Roosevelt Boulevard showed a more than 40 percent drop in red-light violations last year, compared with the first full year of each camera's operation.

In Ohio, the cameras are in use in about two dozen cities. But they have been so controversial that the state House has approved a bill that would outright ban them to enforce red lights.

The bill would also would prohibit their use for speed enforcement except in cases of 20 mph school zones. Even then, a police officer would have to be present.

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.

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