Traffic sergeant weighs in on red-light cameras
The video clip is brief and practically heart-stopping:
A car blasts through a red light at Central and Sullivant avenues on the Near West Side. There is no cross traffic, but across the intersection, in the pedestrian crosswalk, is a line of children heading home from school. For a gut-wrenching moment, it appears that no amount of slamming on the brakes, no nimbleness on the part of the young people, can avert a tragedy.
The instinct is to look away.
But some of the children leap forward and some jump backward, and the car screeches to a halt in the space they vacated.
A red-light camera at the intersection, part of the Columbus Division of Police "Focus on Safety" program, captured the incident. Along with the memory of sweaty palms and a sickening rush of adrenaline, the owner of the vehicle received a ticket for $95 for that little escapade.
"I became a quick fan of it," Sgt. Joseph C. Curmode Jr. told a group of Block Watch coordinators at a meeting last week.
Before viewing that clip and similar events captured by the cameras, Curmode, head of the division's motorcycle unit, had been somewhat skeptical of the whole program, which was approved by Columbus City Council in 2005 and went into operation the following year.
Videos depicting just how much of a danger red-light runners pose to other motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists helped change his mind, he said, as did the approach city officials decided upon for placing the cameras where they could do the most good and not, as critics like to claim, where they would produce the most revenue.
"I don't care if the city's making money on it or losing money on it," Curmode said.
By parsing crash data, division personnel have been able to identify intersections where the most right-angle or T-bone crashes occur, not the ones where motorists are most likely to run a red light, he said. These, Curmode said, are "life-altering accidents" that most often result in serious injury and death for drivers and passengers.
"It really messes them up because there's very little protection, especially on older cars," Curmode added.
According to a Feb. 1, 2011 press release, "Red light cameras saved 159 lives in 2004-08 in 14 of the biggest U.S cities, a new analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows. Had cameras been operating during that period in all large cities, a total of 815 deaths would have been prevented.
When a vehicle approaching an intersection passes over two sensors in the pavement at a speed indicating it won't stop for the signal, Curmode said, the camera equipment takes several photos and 12 seconds of video, capturing the violation and the license plate.
Each violation is reviewed in Colorado by three different employees of the vendor that supplied the red-light cameras, Phoenix-based Redflex Traffic Systems, a wholly owned subsidiary of Redflex Holdings Group of Melbourne, Australia.
Even after all three of the company's personnel sign off on issuing a ticket to the registered owner of the vehicle, Curmode said one of his officers conducts a further final review, using as a guideline whether or not a ticket would have been issued had that officer witnessed the event in person.
"The officers use a lot of discretion when they're reviewing these things," Curmode said, adding that only between 55 and 60 percent of vendor-approved cases result in citations.
Tickets issued for red-light camera violations, because they go against the vehicle and not the individual, are civil citations, which don't result in any points on a driver's license or any information being sent to an insurance company, he said. A procedure exists whereby a car's owner can fill out a form and have it notarized, attesting that someone else was driving the vehicle at the time, Curmode said.
According to 2010 data the sergeant shared with the Block Watch coordinators, intersections with red-light cameras in operation showed an 81.48-percent reduction in the number of right-angle collisions. Rear-end collisions, which critics said would increase at these intersections as people slammed on their brakes to avoid the $95 tickets, showed a 57.4-percent reduction, Curmode said.
"It works," he concluded. "It definitely works."