From The Morning Call

December 4, 2006

Red lights, camera, but no action?

Debate swirls about results of intersection surveillance.

Dan Hartzell

The Road Warrior

 

Q: Red-light cameras are generating revenues for the government, but are the roads getting safer? No! Every study has shown that when red-light cameras are present, rear-end collisions go up. Safe drivers are so fearful of expensive tickets that they slam on their brakes because yellow lights are rigged to be too short, so if you drive through them safely today, you will get a ticket in the mail next week. Instead of being suckered, motorists are using ''Photoblocker'' as a pre-emptive strike. The $30 spray is applied to license plates, and although invisible to the naked eye, the clear haze makes it impossible for the radar flash to photograph the plate.

Carrol Van Stone

Shepherdstown, W.Va.

A: Obviously, this is not so much a question as a product advertisement not something normally found on the Warrior's drive to work. Van Stone was a publicist for Photoblocker until recently; her e-mail rolled into the Warrior's garage about a month ago.

But this is an interesting and controversial product that raises many issues on topics including road safety, governmental authority and the rights of motorists.

In first gear, the Warrior thought Photoblocker to be a Yugo of an idea, a money-making scheme that would increase the incidence of dangerous red-light ''running'' motorists sneaking through intersections after the light has turned from yellow to red.

As the transmission shifted, though, the passing scenery revealed a different picture.

No one in his right mind would favor red-light running. But Joe Scott, marketing director for Photoblocker, contends some municipalities and police departments have rigged the system to catch law-abiding citizens.

For example, the duration of the yellow-light phase has been reduced in some cases so motorists run ''phony'' red lights, Scott said. The practice also causes motorists to slam the brakes, causing rear-end collisions, he said.

Scott and others who oppose red-light cameras (including the National Motorists Association and, check out the name of this Web site,

http://www.highwayrobbery.net ) contend their purpose is as much to stuff municipal coffers as improve road safety, and that companies that make the systems benefit as well.

In Pennsylvania, red-light cameras are allowed only in Philadelphia.

Determining whether you're pro-camera or anti-camera is difficult in part because different studies reach opposing conclusions. For example, two college professors in North Carolina found that the cameras in Greensboro resulted in a 78 percent jump in rear-end crashes results dear to Scott's heart.

But the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety determined there were ''major flaws'' in that study, and the institute endorses red-light cameras as a safety benefit, citing statistics from other studies, including its own.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also considers the systems to be effective, but the agency's assessment backs up Scott's claim that the cameras tend to increase rear-end collisions.

State courts consistently have ruled the cameras legal, the agency says, and public surveys ''typically show strong support,'' particularly in cities where the cameras are used.

That would include Philly, according to City Councilman Frank Rizzo, who wrote the local legislation that resulted in the state law enabling his city alone to use the cameras in a pilot program, which hit the streets in February 2005 and will end at the end of next year. Rizzo said he expects the program to be reauthorized.

Though he had no statistics at hand, Rizzo said accident rates have fallen at some of the five intersections where the cameras stand watch, including Grant Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard, which had been rated as one of the most accident-prone in the country. And as motorists who use the intersections become aware of the cameras, the number of violations has dropped as well, he said.

Chris Vogler of the city Parking Authority cited data showing that red-light citations at two intersections dropped by an average of 78 percent between comparable months in 2005 and 2006.

Accident-rate comparisons aren't yet available, but anecdotal evidence points to an overall decrease, Vogler said.

State Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Chizmar said the state Vehicle Code appears to prohibit the use of substances such as Photoblocker. A provision says it's illegal to display a plate that is ''obscured in any manner which inhibits the proper operation of an automated red-light enforcement system .''

The Pennsylvania law that applies to Philadelphia takes pains to avoid some potential pitfalls, as well as to protect motorist privacy.

It allows only still photos and no moving video; prohibits use of the cameras for surveillance or purposes other than citing red-light runners; specifies that photos and other information gathered are not public records and cannot be distributed or used improperly, and must be destroyed within a year. The law expressly forbids altering the caution-light time and provides extensive appeal rights.

Revenue that exceeds system costs does not accrue to the city or parking authority, but goes to the state to fund safety programs, Vogler said.

Vogler said the authority has experienced few problems with the use of Photoblocker or similar substances.

The Warrior considers himself as much a civil liberties guy as anyone, but outdoor surveillance cameras in general, and red-light cameras in particular, so long as they're operated honestly, seem a fair price to pay for the gain in security and safety.

Road Warrior appears Mondays. E-mail questions about transportation in the Lehigh Valley and beyond to hartzell@mcall.com (please include your name, phone number and the municipality where you live). Or, write to Road Warrior, The Morning Call, 101 N. Sixth St., Allentown, PA 18101-1480.

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