Chattanooga: Cashing in on car cameras

Chattanooga: Cashing in on car cameras

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

April 20th, 2009 by Adam Crisp in News

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."

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

Staff file Photo by Angela Lewis<br> A sign advises...

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.