By Eileen Louissaint
Think before you speed through the next red light: The traffic paparazzi are watching.
More than half of the U.S. states and many other countries use traffic cameras at intersections to photograph drivers disobeying traffic laws. Public officials insist that their purpose remains to decrease the amount of red light running and prevent accidents.
“The goal is public safety,” said Peter Robbins, West Palm Beach public information officer. “It turns out that in urban areas and in downtown the common cause [of accidents] is red light running.”
A red light violation could cost you $125. Since the introduction of red light cameras to West Palm Beach in November 2009, the city has granted violators a 90-day grace period. This will end on Feb. 21, though, when violators will start getting fines in the mail instead of warnings.
The mailed citation will include a before and after photograph of the driver making the violation. A video of the actual incident can be viewed online as well.
“I was supposed to stop behind the white line, but I didn’t stop because I couldn’t see the oncoming traffic,” said Kevin Mason, local resident. “Then I saw the flash and I received the photo two days later.”
On the bright side, the violation does not count for points on your driver’s license.
In the past couple of years, citizens have argued that the use of these cameras invades their privacy and that it may be unconstitutional. In addition to this, it costs around $100,000 for the installation of these cameras, leaving motorists to wonder if the cameras are for the well-being of the people or just a source of revenue for the city.
“Cameras are actually being installed and paid for by third party,” said Robbins. A percentage of the money made from the violations goes to American Traffic Solutions, the company that installs the cameras, and the city’s share will go to traffic safety programs.
The positive side of the expensive cameras: various U.S. cities conducted studies that prove the traffic cameras reduce red light running by 40 to 50 percent, and injury crashes decreased by 25 to 30 percent.
Determining where to place the cameras involves a process of the police examining traffic statistics and intersections where a history of rear-end and side collisions exists.
“We do have regulations as to where to put them,” said Robbins. “We cannot install them on state roads because there are state regulations.”
The fact that drivers agree to abide by the law upon receiving their license gives local governments the right to observe and document violators.
A study reported on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Web site revealed that in Fairfax, Va., drivers ran red lights every 20 minutes at each intersection. Nineteen intersections in four states showed 1,775 violations over 554 hours.
Kathy Ussery of the West Palm Beach Police Department said the department had 1,800 violations reviewed in December and up to 3,000 more in January. One red light camera can cover more than just one location once set up.
In West Palm Beach, cameras are installed at eight different intersections. The intersection of Australian Avenue and Banyan Boulevard finds itself in first place for the most violations caught on camera so far.
The city has not yet determined whether it will increase the amount of red light cameras.
“We are going to evaluate the program and see how well it’s working,” Robbins said. “There is a possibility we will expand.”
Signs are now being posted at intersections to make a complete stop prior to turning right during red lights.
“Some people say that this is a violation of their rights,” Robbins said. “Well, all motorists have a right to be safe and follow the rules. If this helps follow the rules, it helps people.”