published Monday, March 1st, 2010

Smile, you're captured on speed cam

Manned vans photograph autos, provide backup for citations

Chattanooga Police Department Officer Tom Coleman sits in the back of a white van parked alongside Amnicola Highway.

A camera the size of a small suitcase is perched over his left shoulder as his eyes flit back and forth between two computer screens.

One screen shows a view of traffic passing by outside but has a small digital red square superimposed on it. The other shows a Web page with a list of citation categories and links to file a traffic ticket based on what the camera captures.

The camera snaps photos when the red square turns green on the computer screen.

"Once these take them, they're uploaded," Officer Coleman says.

Police and traffic engineers in Chattanooga are citing speeding motorists and at the same time gathering data for the Tennessee General Assembly, whose members are crafting a bill that could place a moratorium on traffic cameras.

BY THE NUMBERS

Total approved citations issued through the use of speed vans, red-light and fixed-speed cameras.

* 2007: 8,256

* 2008: 26,314

* 2009:40,902

New systems were added each year, increasing the number of cameras and citations total by device type from 2007-2009.

* 36,683 -- Mobile speed vans

* 19,989 -- Red-light cameras

* 18,800 -- Fixed-speed cameras

Sources: Chattanooga Police Department, city of Chattanooga

Breakdown of the $50 fine issued through the devices

City receives:

* 25 percent from mobile speed vans

* 56 percent from red-light cameras

* 39 percent from fixed-speed cameras

City portions are used to fund police officers to run the program, drivers' education classes and safety education programs and projects.

Number of each type of device in Chattanooga

* 4: Mobile speed vans

* 9: Red-light cameras

Number of citations issued at the Hixson Pike S-curve before cameras were installed and after

* June 2007: 1,878

* January 2010: 251

Sources: Chattanooga Police Department, Chattanooga

If the proposed moratorium passes, new cameras and contract renewals would be prohibited for two years. Chattanooga's cameras are contracted through Lasercraft, a Norcross, Ga.-based company.

The company handles maintenance, training and upgrades for red-light cameras, traffic cameras used as the city's fixed speed cameras and the mobile speed vans. Lasercraft collects a percentage of each fine issued by each device.

Chattanooga signed the Lasercraft contract in October 2006, and the agreement is up for renegotiation in the coming weeks.

INSIDE THE VANS

In the city's four speed vans, patrol officers sit for eight hours a day, checking citations and adjusting the cameras to the right height to capture license plates.

Sgt. Gary Martin, who heads the speed van program for the police department, said the officers work closely with city traffic engineers, who review crash and citation data to see where most problems arise.

He said he hears plenty of complaints during monthly city traffic court hearings -- including that drivers didn't see the signs, which are not required, and that the cameras are unfair because there isn't any interaction with police.

During a standard traffic stop, however, other violations can crop up quickly, such as not wearing a seat belt or reckless driving, and that would increase fines, Sgt. Martin said.

Police also get lots of calls from residents who want the vans used to cut down speeding in their area, he said, but that's not always feasible.

"Sometimes you may want the speed van in your neighborhood, and we go out there and look, and it's just not possible. There's just nowhere for us to set up," Sgt. Martin said.

A BREAK FOR DRIVERS

What many drivers don't realize, Sgt. Martin said, is that if they get a speeding citation from the vans or other camera, it will cost much less than if an officer writes the ticket.

Speeding fines for all the devices in Chattanooga are set at $50, whether the driver pays it or chooses to appear in court. In comparison, a ticket issued by an officer costs $119 plus court costs if the driver decides to dispute it, according to city court personnel.

  • photo
    Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press A car passes by a specially outfitted van that helps officers dole out speeding tickets on Amnicola Highway on Monday morning. Officer Todd Coleman mans the speed van on Amnicola Highway on Monday morning. The van captures images and license numbers of speeding vehicles on major thoroughfares.

Though the camera captures speeding incidents, police must approve the citations.

"I've had them knock on the van and ask, 'Hey, did I just get a ticket?'" Officer Coleman said.

Each year, city traffic employees sift through an annual report to see, based on accidents and citations, where motorists need to slow down, said John Van Winkle, city traffic engineer.

"Chronic speeding increases the risk of someone making a mistake," he said.

On the Hixson Pike S curves, police have seen a 90 percent reduction in violations since the installation of cameras in 2006, Mr. Van Winkle said. The road was exempted from the legislature's proposed moratorium.

"We had four accidents last year. There were 100 in 2001," he said.

He said the officers move vans as needed. Drivers call both his office and police to complain that the vans are on certain roads too often, he said.

"If we've changed driver behavior, then we'll go somewhere else," Mr. Van Winkle said.

Poll
Should the Chattanooga police department use speed vans?
about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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PhotoRadarScam said...

The cameras are a scam to make money. These things are very inaccurate and make plenty of mistakes, burdening even innocent drivers. Over 28% of the time, the registered owner is NOT the driver so they are citing the wrong person, and they are not notified for several weeks or months! How does that improve safety? It also drains money from the local economy with much of the funds going to out-of-state companies. The cameras must go! Cops, not cameras!

March 1, 2010 at 1:35 a.m.
rolando said...

By golly, now THAT is a fast response! I recommended something like that for I-24 just yesterday following the truck crash... [just kidding. You guys in our PD were way ahead of me...as usual. Thanks.]

Seriously, is it possible to do something like that on our Interstates? Those speeding truckers are murdering us.

Good report, Mr. South. Kudos.

March 1, 2010 at 6:02 a.m.
rolando said...

Cameras are cheap compared to trained officers...more "bang for the buck". [Pun intended.] They are time-tested and are quite accurate [except to the speeder]. Most camera-tickets can be contested...but with little success, I suspect. Saying it wasn't you driving doesn't seem to satisfy the court. That could be a point of appeal, perhaps, or legal challenge. We are all supposedly innocent until proven individually guilty. Not sure of precedent on this.

The real question -- and the only real one -- is, "Do the cameras IN SPECIFIC LOCATIONS reduce accidents caused by speeders?" If Yes, the cameras are doing their job; if not, get rid of them or move them...speeding or running red lights IN THAT SPECIFIC LOCATION is NOT the problem. [Obviously, those on the S-curves are working and make a great example.]

March 1, 2010 at 6:21 a.m.
geoengr said...

Take a look at the distribution of revenues received by the City --

Mobile speed vans - 25% Red light cameras - 56% Fixed speed cameras - 39%

The total is more than 100%...are these statistics accurate?

March 1, 2010 at 6:38 a.m.
SCOTTYM said...

geo,

I believe those stats refer to the amount confiscated by the City from each type of camera. They get 25% of the take from the vans, 56% of the take from red light cameras, and 39% of the take from the fixed speed cameras. Perhaps more coffee would be appropriate. ;-)


rolando,

I don't know that it has happened here, but there have been cases in other places where someone other than the car owner was "snapped" by photo enforcement and the only out for the owner was to turn in their fellow citizen. Big Brother is here.

March 1, 2010 at 7:22 a.m.
MountainJoe said...

Big Money, Big Brother ... but apparently it's all OK because "it's for our own good."

Who are we to demand those pesky little things like Constitutional rights to due process and "innocent until proven guilty"?

Because it's for our own good. The politicians and the police say so. And they are all wise and all knowing and only want what's best for us. Right?

March 1, 2010 at 7:28 a.m.
rolando said...

Must be that "implied-consent" thing that allows implied-guilt as used with DUI. Anyone challenged that you know of? Seems if you have an iron-clad alibi for the time of the ticket issuance [in jail or something], that pretty well proves innocence.

March 1, 2010 at 7:35 a.m.
Tax_Payer said...

I sense an ethical issue with a corporation making money on fines imposed by the local government. It would be different if the city owned and operated this equipment outright.

This is kind of like outsourcing police officers for robots.

March 1, 2010 at 8:09 a.m.
Tax_Payer said...

One more thing... If the city of Chattanooga has jurisdiction over the I-24 and I-75, where the accident prone areas are with the higher and deadlier impact crashes occur, I feel it would be very wise and looking out for the peoples safety to set up automated enforcement in those locations.

March 1, 2010 at 8:12 a.m.
dt4c said...

Look no further than your neighbor to the north, Cleveland for the truth about this crap. For years it has been safety, safety, safety when it comes to traffic cameras. Now, the new statistics show that intersections are safer (yes I know RL cams vs speed cams but bear with me) BUT Cleveland is removing them because they are not making money! The TRUTH! These cameras are about making money and nothing else. Just admit the truth and maybe the public would be a little more interested.

March 1, 2010 at 9:36 a.m.

I love it because you only get ticketed if you're breaking the law.

Go stand at the intersection of Ashland Terrace and Dayton Boulevard. Count the number of drivers, over a half hour, who "roll through" the right on red off Dayton and onto Ashland. It's really comical. Easily over 50%.

Hey, I'm clean so far. What about you?

March 1, 2010 at 9:58 a.m.
geoengr said...

Thanks ScottyM...and you're quite right, not enough coffee this AM....

March 1, 2010 at 12:48 p.m.
William18 said...

I'm not sure I agree with the idea of an officer sitting in a van for eight hours a day. I would say the more automated, like a mounted red-light camera, the better. But overall it sounds like an enforcement program that should be supported by the public. 40,000 violations shows that there is an unacceptable level of speeding and red light running going on.

March 1, 2010 at 6:43 p.m.
cubuffalo said...

All I know is that these systems really have a dramatic effect on the amount of property damage and personal injuries where they are in place.

This is especially true when there is a lot of publicity like this article about them. Drivers are just naturally more cautious when they think there is a chance they will get a ticket.

March 1, 2010 at 8:09 p.m.
MountainJoe said...

cubuffalo, you are wrong. Unbiased studies show that red light cameras actually make intersections less safe. Not to mention the fact that they violate due process of law.

Check this out. Safety due to traffic cameras is an illusion. (And even if it were true, it wouldn't be worth sacrificing our rights as Americans.)

http://www2.tbo.com/content/2008/mar/12/na-red-light-cameras-increase-accidents-usf-study-/

March 1, 2010 at 8:54 p.m.
Volsrunwild said...

The cameras change behaviors on the road. people simply pay more attention to the road instead of the other distractions in their cars. this has to be a good thing for safety!!

March 4, 2010 at 8:34 a.m.
MountainJoe said...

Actually no, Volsrunwild, it doesn't have to be a good thing for safety. If you check out the link in my post at 8:54 p.m. on 3/1, you will find that red light cameras actually increase accidents, precisely because they change behaviors on the road, in a bad way.

Once people become aware of the cameras, they change the way they drive. Instead of doing the relatively safer thing in a close yellow light/red light situation and proceeding carefully through the intersection (which almost never results in a collision) they slam on the brakes to avoid the ticket, which is very likely to result in a rear-end collision when the car behind them cannot stop.

If you actually look at the statistics, most right-angle crashes due to red light running occur well after the light turns red. So ticketing the technical violators who are a fraction of a second late clearing the intersection does little or nothing to reduce such crashes, while the knowledge of the camera's presence increases rear-end crashes. Net result = less safety, not more.

But, net result = more revenue for the city. Which is what the cameras are really all about.

Or, as I put it in Signal Mountain's public meeting about traffic cameras (after which, fortunately, the idea was scratched) ... "if it's really about safety and not money, why isn't ATS (the camera company) a non-profit?" Never did get a straight answer to that one.

March 4, 2010 at 9:27 a.m.
ucjb said...

"The company handles maintenance, training and upgrades for red-light cameras, traffic cameras used as the city's fixed speed cameras and the mobile speed vans. Lasercraft collects a percentage of each fine issued by each device."

So the company that profits from the camera citations also calibrates and maintains them. You've got to be kidding.

March 9, 2010 at 7:19 p.m.
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