Red-light cameras profitable in Philadelphia
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HARRISBURG -- Ten years ago, State Farm Insurance gave Philadelphia a dubious distinction.
It ranked two busy intersections along U.S. 1 in northeast Philadelphia -- a heavily-trafficked, 12-lane thoroughfare that goes past houses, shopping malls, big-box retail and restaurants -- as among the nation's most dangerous.
"An intersection in Florida was the worst, but we were the second and third," based on accident insurance claims, said Christopher Vogler, a Philadelphia Parking Authority official.
So, in 2005, while ex-Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell was governor, the state Legislature authorized a pilot program just for Philadelphia, featuring a traffic safety tool called "red-light cameras" -- a program that could now be coming to Pittsburgh.
Philadelphia started small, at the two most accident-prone intersections on U.S. 1, which is known locally as Roosevelt Boulevard. But now there are 96 red-light cameras around the city, including others on Roosevelt Boulevard, as well as on traffic lights in Center City and near the football and baseball stadiums in South Philly.
"The cameras have gone a long way toward improving dangerous intersections, especially along Roosevelt Boulevard," said Mr. Vogler, manager of "red light photo enforcement" for the Parking Authority, which runs the program. "Absolutely, they've been good for us. They've changed drivers' behavior."
Other top officials agree. Mark McDonald, news secretary for Mayor Michael Nutter, said the mayor "certainly supports the use of red-light cameras. They're one of a number of law enforcement tools to make our streets safer."
But opponents dispute the benefits, saying the tickets issued for red-light camera violations are just another way for government to reach into people's pockets. Critics maintain the cameras cause some drivers to rear-end the car in front of them as it jams on the brakes for a red light. Other opponents argue that making yellow lights one or two seconds longer, to allow more cars to go through the light, are a better way to reduce accidents.
Critics also contend that lobbyists for red-light camera manufacturers pressure state officials to legalize the cameras as a way to fatten the companies' profits.
In Philadelphia, the fine for running a red light is sizeable -- a $100 ticket for each occurrence. The camera, on a pole facing the traffic light, takes a photo of the light as it turns red and of the license plate of the car going through it. The owner of the car must pay the fine, regardless of who was driving.
The same $100 fine could be imposed in Pittsburgh, now that the Legislature, just before leaving for the summer, expanded the program to the 'Burgh and four suburban Philadelphia counties. The size of the fine would be decided by Pittsburgh City Council and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl -- if they decide to install the cameras.
That verdict is still to come. "We are reviewing the new legislation but haven't yet made a decision," said Ravenstahl spokeswoman Joanna Doven.
For fiscal 2010-11, the gross revenue for Philadelphia's red-light tickets was a hefty $13 million; after installation and maintenance expenses were deducted, $7.6 million remained. Half went for Philly traffic improvements, and the other half went to the state Transportation Department for improvements elsewhere in the state.
Before a red-light camera can be installed at a Philadelphia intersection, one of the 17 City Council members must propose legislation, council must approve it and the mayor must sign it.
Many state officials, such as PennDOT secretary Barry Schoch, think the cameras are the way for towns to go.
"Crashes caused by cars that run red lights can be especially dangerous because cars passing through an intersection on a green light can be hit broadside by the red-light runners," increasing chances for a fatality, said department spokesman Dennis Buterbaugh.
Another fan of cameras is state Senate Republican leader Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County, which borders Philadelphia. He authored the recent expansion bill that authorized the cameras in Pittsburgh and in his home county and three adjacent counties, Montgomery, Bucks and Chester.
"Red-light cameras are a good idea because they save lives. It's just that simple," Mr. Pileggi said last week.
The original red-light expansion bill, drafted in the spring, would also have permitted them in numerous other larger towns around the state, such as Mc-Keesport, Uniontown, New Castle, Johnstown, Erie, Altoona and Harrisburg. But those cities were removed in the final version, which passed the Legislature at about 1 a.m. last Sunday.
Mr. Pileggi said he'd like to see the program expanded further, but there was a feeling among some legislators "that we should proceed slowly and get some experience before we take the next step toward expansion."
He noted that the new legislation allows officials in Pittsburgh and the southeastern counties to erect red-light cameras but doesn't require them to do so. "It leaves the local government the choice of whether to participate," he said.
Pittsburgh was included in the final bill at the urging of Rep. Paul Costa, D-Wilkins, whose district includes a small part of the city. He said he wanted to give Pittsburgh leaders the option of using the cameras.
Other red-light camera backers include two national groups, the Governors Highway Safety Association and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is funded by insurance companies.
A 2011 Insurance Institute study that compared large cities with the cameras to those without them "found the devices reduced the fatal red-light crash rate by 24 percent," said the Institute's Russ Rader. "Red-light cameras are a proven way to improve intersection safety."
"The key is that the cameras should be installed in areas where intersection crashes occur frequently," said Jonathan Adkins of GHSA. "They should also complement, not replace, existing traditional enforcement," such as police patrols and radar guns (which, in Pennsylvania, only state police can use).
And yet the cameras remain controversial in some quarters. So far, according to Insurance Institute statistics, less than half the states -- 24 -- have legalized them, either statewide or just in certain cities, such as in Pennsylvania. About 550 cities in the 24 states have the cameras.
Last fall the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group cautioned that the private, for-profit companies that manufacture red-light cameras are lobbying government officials to install them. PennPIRG warned that in some cases, traffic safety has become less important than higher profits for the companies.
"When private firms and municipalities consider revenues first -- and safety second -- the public interest is threatened," the group warned.
Strong opposition to the cameras is coming from an Ann Arbor, Mich., group, the National Motorists Association.
Executive director James Walker disputed Philadelphia Parking Authority data showing that accidents on Roosevelt Boulevard have decreased since the cameras were installed. He said figures from Philadelphia police "are very clear -- the cameras cause more accidents," especially when one car stops suddenly to avoid running a red light and the car behind it runs into it.
Mr. Vogler of the Parking Authority said independent studies have shown the cameras have been reducing accidents over the past seven years, as people have gotten used to them. He said large signs warn motorists that an upcoming intersection has a camera.
Mr. Walker said that accidents would decrease if yellow "caution" lights were made longer -- even by just one second. When red-light cameras are used, he charged, the yellow lights are too short -- which tends to make motorists speed through the light as it turns red.
"Using safer, longer yellow intervals prevents far more violations than the cameras, but that simple solution is not profitable," he said, adding that he views the cameras as "predatory revenue devices."
If the red light program in Philadelphia is expanded to other cities, he contended, "The only reason will be money, not safety."
First Published July 8, 2012 12:00 am