published Monday, April 20th, 2009

Chattanooga: Cashing in on car cameras

Devices yield $1.7 million but little improvement in intersection crashes.

by Adam Crisp

PDF: Crash charts


* 6: Red-light cameras installed in the city

* $1.7 million: Fines collected so far

* $50: Amount of a ticket

Red-light cameras went up at five Chattanooga intersections in December 2007 with the hope the devices would reduce the number of T-bone crashes.

It hasn’t worked, but the photo enforcement program — including the speed cameras on Hixson Pike and mobile speed cams — brought in $1.7 million in fines, city records show.

Of the five initial cameras, three recorded more right-angle crashes in 2008 than 2007, city records show. Two recorded fewer crashes. Rear-end collisions have stayed roughly the same, the figures show.

But before the public pumps its brakes and decides the program is a money-grabbing failure, city traffic engineer John Van Winkle wants everyone to give the program more time.

“We want to look at the numbers over several years,” he said. “We really need at least two years to make any conclusion.”

  • photo
    Staff file Photo by Angela Lewis
    A sign advises motorists that a traffic camera is in use at the corner of Highway 153 and Hamill Road.

Many residents are vocal about their frustrations with the cameras, saying that they really do not have a purpose.

“I think it’s a money-maker, definitely,” said Katie Boerema, a Chattanooga resident. “Pretty much everyone I talk to thinks that it’s ridiculous and that they shouldn’t add them.”

State Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, is on the side of those who think traffic cameras are more about padding police budgets than reducing crashes.

“I don’t like red-light cameras, and I don’t think they have a thing to do with safety,” said Sen. Burchett, author of a bill to ban speed cameras on interstates. “It’s a revenue stream for government.”

City Councilman Jack Benson said taking away the cameras now would be premature.

“Those right-angle crashes are so severe, and result in such severe injuries, I think we should give it more time,” Mr. Benson said.

slowdown on s curves

Though the red-light cameras’ success at reducing crashes is mixed, the city’s speed cameras tell a different story.

Crashes and citations have fallen in areas watched by speed cameras, city records show.

Mr. Van Winkle said there were 18 crashes in the Hixson Pike S curves in 2006. There were 10 in 2007, the year the cameras were installed, and just five crashes in 2008, he said.

And the S Curves, a deadly site for accidents for years, had no serious crashes last year, police said.

Mr. Van Winkle said red-light and speed cameras serve different purposes.

“Every time you drive past the speed cameras you’re subject to getting a ticket. How many times do you come to a red light that’s on yellow? It’s not going to be 100 percent of the time.”

Mr. Van Winkle also pointed out many intersections have cameras only on one approach.

For instance, the camera at M.L. King Boulevard and Pine Street only tickets westbound motorists and those exiting the northbound off-ramp of U.S. Highway 27.

He said records show fewer crashes in the areas of intersections that actually are photo enforced.

Police say it will take time for motorists to notice that the ticketing program is in place.

“If you drive down M.L. King every day, you may hit a green light for three days, a yellow light another and maybe a red on the fifth,” said Sgt. Al Tallant, a supervisor in the Chattanooga Police Department traffic division. “It may take awhile for people to really notice the cameras and make changes in behavior.”

Photo enforcement is under assault in some places. City leaders in Dalton, Ga., urged by their police chief and mayor, scrapped their camera enforcement program earlier this month. Other cities in Georgia have done the same thing, and two bills in the Tennessee General Assembly seek to regulate the cameras further.

“I’d be in favor of it if I thought it made the intersections safer, but you can’t find one study that says that,” said Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who also is an insurance broker.

buying safety

Chattanooga officials plan to use fines generated from traffic cameras to prop up programs that could prevent accidents. That could include capital improvements such as improved road signs and brighter traffic lights, among others.

The city has put about $925,000 from fines into a fund for those purposes.

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield wants to use that money for a voucher program for teen driver education, spokesman Richard Beeland said.

Fines also pay the salaries of four full-time Chattanooga police officers who man the mobile speed cams and review citations.

Fines are $50 and do not count as “points” on licenses. The city gives $19.50 from every traffic camera ticket to Atlanta-based Laser Craft, which maintains the cameras and prints and mails the tickets.

The program isn’t about money, Mr. Van Winkle insists.

“We’re not trying to find excuses to give tickets,” he said. “We are trying to change driver behavior.”

Staff writer Laura Galbraith contributed to this story.

  • Cashing in on car cameras
    Cashing in on car cameras
about Adam Crisp...

Adam Crisp covers education issues for the Times Free Press. He joined the paper's staff in 2007 and initially covered crime, public safety, courts and general assignment topics. Prior to Chattanooga, Crisp was a crime reporter at the Savannah Morning News and has been a reporter and editor at community newspapers in southeast Georgia. In college, he led his student paper to a first-place general excellence award from the Georgia College Press Association. He earned ...

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Jack_Ryan said...

I wonder what the person in the black car was thinking? Maybe the tractor-trailer was slow? Last week I was pulling out on I-75 off of Clouds Springs and a tractor trailer (Swift Transport) appeared to be doing about 85-90 mph almost ran into the back of me.

April 20, 2009 at 9:16 a.m.
KWVeteran said...

It's for the money. Whenever excuses are made for reasons other than money, it's ALWAYS for the money. This has been and will continue to be a money-grab under the guise of safety. The statistics will continue to be drummed up on the side of safety while continuing to ask innocuous questions "How much is a human life worth" and phony issues "It's for the children".

April 20, 2009 at 9:42 a.m.
joshkotw said...

Total scam, just another tax on citizens until we have nothing left

Thank you to the TFP for keeping this story alive

Shame on the city and Mr. Van Winkle for greed

Cut back your spending elsewhere rather than taking more of our money

April 20, 2009 at 10:06 a.m.
PhotoRadarScam said...

The accident shown in the video would not have been prevented by a camera. What may have prevented it, is if they had lenghtened the yellow light time by a second. This is low-cost and highly effective solution. This is also how we know this is a money grab.

“We want to look at the numbers over several years,” he said. “We really need at least two years to make any conclusion.”

For some reason, he's unwilling to look at the proven effects of adjusting yellow and no-green times. He's also unwilling to ackowledge that the results are the same in TN as they are everywhere else they've been installed. Why does he think TN will be different?

It's all about the money.

April 20, 2009 at 1:23 p.m.
EaTn said...

This same article is on knoxnews and already 66 comments are posted. Are people from Chattanooga going to let those in Knoxville be their spokespersons for something so controversial as this red light issue?

April 20, 2009 at 2:42 p.m.
thelight said...

I am for the speeding cameras. The speeding cameras have proven themselves over and over in the reduction of accidents, but that isn't the only benefit they provide. They really do provide safety for the pedistrians walking along the side of the road on the sidewalks. On Barton Avenue for instance, the area is residential with a main raod and access to downtown. The people in the neighborhood utilize the sidewalks for all kinds of reasons; walking/jogging with the family to the park or downtown. Don't we want to encourage our citizans to exercise instead of riding in our cars? Shouldn't we enjoy the great city we live in? There are some pros to slowing down.

April 20, 2009 at 9 p.m.
enufisenuf said...

They were put up to prevent t bone crashes? What idiot thought that little jewel up as an excuse to use the cameras as a means to increase revenue from tickets without having to have a cop do his job. This is not right. At what point will these cameras, and there will be thousands of them if we allow it ,be trained on citizans for the purpose of spying on private lives. Disable these cameras now and keep doing it untill the dolts in power stop this big brother, were all criminals outllok of what is currently a predominatly law abiding community. We are being all treated as potential criminals.

April 21, 2009 at 7:36 a.m.

I live in North Chattanooga and there is absolutely no doubt that the speed cameras along Barton Avenue and the S curves has made the roads safer and improved the quality of life of people who live in the neighborhoods in this area.

Since the cameras on Barton Avenue were installed I finally feel safe making a left hand turn onto the road. I’m not sure why the center lane is currently blocked, but I like it, and hope the city makes the lane a permanent turn lane, or better yet makes Barton Avenue a two lane road and uses the extra space to widen and improve the sidewalks along Barton.

The fact is while the majority of drivers are responsible, the most aggressive and unlawful drivers in our society outnumber the police, and have taken over our roads. They are more visible than the police, and do a better job intimidating other drivers to go faster than the police do in enforcing speed limits. It is about time that elected officials did their jobs and enforced traffic laws and made our neighborhoods and commercial districts safe.

Why shouldn’t Chattanooga generate a revenue stream from unlawful drivers? The speed cameras along the S curves have been up for over a year, and I drive the roads frequently (before the cameras I avoided this section of road), and have never received a ticket. The excessive speeders and aggressive drivers are the reason we need more police to patrol the roads, and the ones who cause the wrecks so they should help fund these services. If you don’t want to be fined then drive the speed limit.

I agree with the cameras being a privacy issue, but the fact is Corporate America has already stolen our privacy, and I doubt the author of this article and most of the posters would really go for the alternative to the cameras which would be aggressive law enforcement, a points system that actually took the worst drivers off the road, and a legal system that punished drivers who blatantly cause serious accidents with hard jail time. (I don’t believe the man in the Jaguar that killed two people on Hixson got any jail time).

If the author is going to write a biased article about the city’s attempt to make our roads safer, then he should provide an alternative solution because people should not live in fear of driving, biking or walking in their neighborhoods and commercial districts because a select few are allowed to fly around in their cars pissing all over our community with utter contempt for the rights and safety of their neighbors.

May 19, 2009 at 11:25 p.m.
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