Colorado Springs — After a seven-year hiatus, red light camera enforcement systems are returning to select intersections in Colorado Springs. An experiment with the cameras in 2010 ended when then-Mayor Steve Bach concluded that it wasn’t worth the expense of the three police officers needed to monitor the system and pulled the plug on the project after less than a year.
Late last year the subject came up again and Mayor John Suthers authorized Police Chief Pete Carey to review the issue.
Whether there was a substantial reduction in accidents during 2010 is open to interpretation.
According to an August 22, 2017 presentation to the Mayor and City Council, the 2010-2011 experiment saw an 8 percent decrease in all accidents (not just red-light accidents) at the four intersections involved, and a 67 percent increase in all accidents between 2011 and 2016.
But the presentation also included that the increase may have causal factors other than the absence of the cameras, including increases in traffic volume.
Citizen concerns mentioned at the presentation included that the cameras are revenue generators in disguise. More than $175,000 in fines were collected during the first go-round.
“Revenue from the violations is first used to pay a set fee to the vendor, with any remaining money going into the general fund,” said Sgt. John Koch of the Colorado Springs Police Department, “The police department does not receive any direct revenue from the violations.”
Laura Carno, founder of SpringsTaxpayers.com, a local watchdog and advocacy group said, “We can all agree that we want our streets to be as safe as possible. We are concerned that this move to implement red light cameras, after they were taken down in 2011, is a move to once again increase revenue in the City coffers. Whether it is the storm water fee, the pothole tax, or any of the other increases that are passed on to taxpayers, the trend in Colorado Springs has been to ask for more. The City has record spending and it needs to live within its means and stop treating taxpayers like an ATM machine.”
The revenue generating argument is perhaps the most contentious nationwide. A 2014 article by San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Kevin Fagan notes that California, with the highest red-light fines in the U.S., collects nearly $500 per violation. Overall yearly revenues exceed $80 million to the state, $50 million to cities and counties, with more than $4.2 million for a single camera in Berkley in 2010.
A report from a 2016 forum at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said, “Many speakers emphasized the importance of organizing camera programs so that the public understands their value as a safety tool, not as a revenue generator. One way to do that is to keep camera revenues separate from the general fund and dedicate them to traffic safety.”
In Colorado red-light camera fines are limited to $75 by state statute.
One thing affecting the number of tickets issued is the timing of the yellow light cycle. If the cycle is shortened it increases the chances that drivers will be unable to stop before entering on the red or getting “caught in the box” when the light turns while they are still in the intersection. Shortening the cycle also increases the number of rear-end accidents caused by leading drivers slamming on the brakes and drivers behind following too closely.
When asked about the details of exactly when the cameras are triggered Sgt. Koch said, “The camera system operates on complex technology and could, depending on the situation, photograph a driver who enters the intersection on a yellow light. That said, we review the incident before any fine is assessed to determine if a statutory violation occurred.”
But he also said, “Per state statute, drivers are required to stop their vehicle before a stop bar or pedestrian crosswalk. The intent of the program is to stop red light violations – which can include passing the stop bar or going into a pedestrian crosswalk – because they pose a significant public safety hazard.” This, he says, can potentially include rolling right-turn-on-red stops and creeping across the line even after stopping.
“A situation like this may trigger the system,” Koch said, “however, it is unlikely this is something that would be enforced. Again, however, each violation is assessed on a case-by-case basis.”
The length of the yellow light cycle, he said, is determined by the city traffic engineering division.
An inquiry about yellow light timing in December by Carno’s group was met with ambiguity.
In an email exchange, Jason Ferris, an Engineering Technician with the traffic engineering division said, “I do not mind giving you the formula at all. It is a formula used, and approved, as a national standard. I will find a link to a page that has it and send it to you.”
But according to Carno that information was never sent.
Instead SpringsTaxpayers.com received an email response from Kathleen Krager, Traffic Engineering Division Manager, who wrote, “There are several versions of formulas and tables which can be found in ITE Transportation Handbook as well as other industry references. All of the formulas are guidelines and can be adjusted to accommodate the local travel characteristics. I suggest you contact the CSPD for any further questions on Photo Enforcement.”
According to SpringsTaxpayers.com, the group is preparing a Colorado Open Records Act request for both the actual documents mentioned by Farris and used by the engineering division and any data on existing light timing schedules that can be used for comparison after the system is installed.
Carno said, “Since there are studies showing that lengthening the duration of the yellow light reduces accidents, we will pay close attention to whether this move is about safety or revenue generation.”