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Do red light cameras actually make you safer, as police claim?

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Photo: Video by kgun9.com

Do red light cameras actually make you safer, as police claim?

CREATED Feb 17, 2012

Reporter: Claire Doan

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) – “Really, it’s for your own good.” That’s what city officials tell us, time and again when it comes to those pesky red light cameras. But is it really true? Do they improve public safety, or are they just easy money-makers for the city?

Sgt. Timothy Beam of the Tucson Police Department’s Traffic Safety Program thinks they benefit the public.

“So far, the numbers have shown there is a decrease in collisions at those intersection. Here at ‘Traffic,’ our job is the safe and expeditious flow of traffic across the city and so far it has certainly proved to be the point,” Beam told 9 On Your Side.

So KGUN9 News double-checked, comparing the collision numbers for the 12 months before and 12 months after at intersections where cameras have been up for a least a year. Tanque Verde/Grant went from 38 collisions down to 26 the year after cameras were installed; 26 crashes up to 27 for Valencia/Nogales; 26 down to 10 for 22nd/Wilmot; 29 dropped to 23 for Oracle and River; 24 down to 11 for Speedway/Kolb; and 14 to 6 for Grant/Swan.

Although it looks cut and dry in terms of safety, but if you look at the Year 2, crashes at three of the four intersections jumped from Year 1– though they are still comparatively lower than before cameras were installed. The cameras at the other two intersections -- Speedway/Kolb and Grant/Swan -- have only been up for a year.

The mixed data are why Councilman Steve Kozachik isn’t so fond of the cameras.

“So the data’s inconclusive. My sense is that as long as you have inconclusive data and you're actually busting people for left-hand turns, not just trying to blow through intersections, we probably ought to take another look at them,” Kozachik said.

But ‘another look’ begs another question: What if cameras have gone down, because people are avoiding the intersection? Or because fewer people are driving – as they are across the country – because of the economic slump?

Dr. Dianne Patterson, a University of Arizona Research Scientist, said those factors may make a big difference.

“At this point, I and a lot of people I know just go out of our way not to go through the intersections,” Patterson said.

Again, KGUN9 checked it out. Mike Graham, a spokesperson for the city of Tucson, said the Department of Transportation does not record traffic volume, but pointed us to the Pima County Association of Governments for data. Although the organization was able to produce traffic numbers for random days and years, they were not sufficient in terms of reliably assessing the number of cars at each intersection. So KGUN9 News checked with Beam.

“For the most part in raw numbers, the number of collisions have gone down,” Beam said.

“But you can’t  account for people avoiding the intersections?” Reporter Claire Doan asked.

“Can’t account for driving patterns, no,” Beam admitted.

And what about motive? Are dollars signs driving the program?

Each time you get a ticket, most of the money goes to the city and some of it goes to American Traffic Solutions, the company that installs and maintains the cameras. Documents show that from August 2010 to August 2011, the city paid ATS nearly $1.4 million.

Doan asked Beam: “Officials often say money is not involved, but can you explain how that actually is if tickets generate money that goes to the city?”

“It’s not about money. If it’s about money, we’re in it for the wrong reasons. There are dollars coming into the city coffers, absolutely. ATS does make money, absolutely. But it’s not what it’s about,” Beam said.

Beam pointed to the manpower and resources required for police to monitor the intersections 24/7, and added that there is no difference between a ticket given by an officer and one generated by a camera.

In the end, it’s safe to say that the debate over red light cameras won’t stop anytime soon.