The debate leading up to the public hearing on red light cameras has been focused on public safety and revenue, but most of Monday’s testimony was focused on the effectiveness of the cameras.
The legislation, the subject of a Transportation Committee public hearing Monday, allows municipalities with populations above 48,000 residents to install these cameras and levy a maximum fine of $50 fine per violation.
Critics of the proposal allege lawmakers are motivated by the ability to collect revenue, but proponents have tried to do their best to address those concerns in the legislation.
For instance, instead of being placed at the “busiest intersections,“ the legislation requires police chiefs to decide where they will be placed.
Bridgeport Police Chief Joseph Gaudett, who testified in support of the bill, said he would have to place “hundreds” of officers on the street to crack down on motorists violating red light traffic signals.
“We really want to create a sense of order, especially in our downtown area,” Gaudett said.
Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said this bill, at least as far as advocacy from the city of New Haven is concerned, has come from a very impressive grassroots coalition of neighborhood groups and safe street advocates.
“The proposal was not a proposal from the city administration, but from a group of energized community advocates,” Looney said.
He said the legislation strikes a balance between public safety concerns and civil liberties. He said it’s not a “gotcha effort” like the caricature of the small town sheriff hiding behind a billboard in the center of town near the one traffic light to catch unsuspecting motorist. He stressed that the measure was about public safety.
He said proof of that is the bill will sunset after six years to allow municipalities to evaluate the impact of the red light cameras.
State Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, said there seems to be an underlying concern and distrust of government because other cities and states have decided to manipulate the length of the yellow light signal to increase the number of red light tickets. He said Connecticut’s legislation could be written to prevent that type of tampering.
“Generating revenue should not be a priority, nor should we create a system that’s sort of rigged in order to enhance revenue,” Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra told Lemar.
And as for the oft repeated story of a funeral procession in Florida being ticketed despite a police escort, there’s language in the bill to prevent a similar situation from happening in Connecticut, Lemar said.
Gaudett testified that the legislation requires a review of the red light violations by a police officer and an officer would have to be present if a particular violation was appealed by a motorist.
Others, like University of South Florida’s John Large, don’t believe the studies both for and against red light cameras collectively point in favor of the cameras.
Large said by studying other studies he and his colleagues discovered that the studies in favor of red light cameras were statistically flawed. Since Large and his colleagues did the study in 2008, they’ve done 100 interviews and only received phone calls from four public officials over the past four years. Large was brought to Connecticut Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.
He said the studies that favor red light cameras admitted that rear-end accidents increase as a result.
Richard Retting, vice president of Sam Schwartz Engineering, who supports red light cameras said that’s true. Red light cameras result in more rear-end accidents, but he said it’s the same affect they see when they install a traffic light where there wasn’t one previously.
“Angle crashes go way down, and rear-end crashes go up,” Retting said.
But the increase in rear-end crashes in no way outweighs the savings from injury crash reductions, he added.
“This is a lot like penicillin where there can be side-effects. Lots of things that we do to improve safety have side-effects,” Retting said.
Airbags are a good example, because they’ve saved thousands of lives, but they’ve also killed children, he said.
“When you put in red light cameras there’s a dramatic drop in red light running anywhere from 40 percent up,” Retting said. “Sky’s the limit.”
“The culture of driving changes. People drive through intersections differently than they’ve done before,” he added.
Retting’s trip from Washington D.C. to Connecticut was paid for by Redflex Traffic Systems, one of the two largest red light traffic camera companies.
Retting said he took the train, stayed in the Holiday Inn, and ate a tuna sandwich for dinner last night.
“I’d be happy if these cameras raised no revenue,” Retting said. “I’m a traffic safety engineer my goal is to see streets and roads become safer.”
A common refrain of opponents at Monday’s hearing was that communities around the country are scrapping their red light cameras.
The ACLU of Connecticut pointed out that claims the Los Angeles’ now-defunct traffic-light program improved safety were unsupported, according to a 2010 audit of the program. And a 2011 municipal audit in Denver concluded that no safety benefit had been demonstrated for red-light cameras and recommended removing them if no safety improvements could be shown.
Retting said 95 percent of the communities who have installed the red light cameras currently maintain them. Only 2 percent have scrapped their programs due mostly to state constitutional issues.
ACLU Executive Director Andrew Schneider said he sees communities and states dropping these programs all the time. If 14 states have already scrapped these programs he questioned where Retting was getting his numbers.
But it’s only enabling legislation which allows municipalities to decide whether they want to install the cameras.
“We’re big kids down in New Haven. Let us decide whether red light cameras are right for us,” New Haven Alderman Justin Elicker told the legislature’s Transportation Committee.