A recent Mesa City Council subcommittee vote could be a harbinger on the fate of the city’s red-light traffic program, which city data indicates has led to a decrease in accidents since its inception.
The red-light cameras, which fall under the auspices of the Mesa Police Department’s photo safety program, were installed in 2006 and are currently deployed in 24 intersections across the city. Of the 24 cameras, 15 take photos of people who speed through intersections during green lights, and the photo safety program also incorporates five fix-speed cameras at Rhodes, Fremont and Brimhall junior highs and Mesa and Skyline high schools and two mobile van units.
At a public safety committee meeting on May 30, vice mayor Alex Finter and councilmember Chris Glover voted to recommend the council not approve the renewal of the contract with camera-operator American Traffic Solutions when it ends in February 2014. The third member of the committee, Dennis Kavanaugh, voted to recommend renewing the contract when it ends.
In an email correspondence, Glover, who said his preference would remain the same if the item is brought to the full council for a vote, preferred to hire additional officers in lieu of renewing the contract, as he said “their presence is more beneficial to the City.”
“I do not believe that a camera can provide the same sort of discretion and common-sense approach that a law enforcement officer can. I think the human element is something that can’t be ignored,” he said.
According to a March article in Time magazine, the number of contracts with red-light camera companies has grown from 155 in 2005 to 689 in 2012, but, as the article notes, the cameras have drawn complaints for unfair practices and potentially increasing the number of accidents in those intersections. A report released by the state of New Jersey in 2012 reported on by the Star Ledger indicated the number of accidents, particularly rear-end, increased at 12 intersections that had the lights installed for at least a year, as did the expenses related to those crashes.
But statistics acquired from the police department and the city between 2007 and 2011 — the last year Mesa has data from the Arizona Department of Transportation — show safety at the intersections with red-light cameras has improved during the program’s existence. According to the MPD, the number of crashes decreased from 538 in 2008 to 297 in 2011, and a majority of the photo-safety violations, approximately 56 percent, were committed by non-Mesa motorists.
Mesa traffic program coordinator Joseph Bonacci added in an email the average speed at the five school zones monitored has dropped by between seven and 10 miles an hour. The latter, he said, has made those school zones safer for students and parents who pick up and drop off their children every school day.
“Why would anyone have a problem with a tool that decreases speeds and crashes?” he asked.
Bonacci’s figures encompass all types of accidents, but do not delineate the rear-end collisions that tend to increase as drivers slam on the brakes to avoid going through a red light. According to numbers provided by the city, however, the number of rear-end collisions at the red-light camera intersections has decreased since the city implemented the program.
In the three years prior to the lights’ installation, covering 2003, 2004 and 2005, the city averaged 171 rear-end collisions at the red-light camera intersections; in the last three years, 2010, 2011 and 2012, the average has dropped by 33 percent to 114 per year.
Not that the red-light cameras are the sole reason for the decreases, as Kavanaugh noted the city has taken additional steps (addition of new turn lanes and the widening of those intersections) as part of a “holistic” approach to traffic issues.
“The cameras are just one part of it,” he said. “We’ve been pretty fortunate in taking the approach we’ve had to these intersections.”
An accusation launched against the program is intent, as critics in Mesa and other cities and states say the purpose of red-light cameras has more to do to earn a profit and less on promoting public safety. A 2012 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation indicated the money earned through the red-light cameras slightly outpaces the expense associated with any increase in crashes that are derived from the cameras’ implementation.
While Bonacci said the red-light cameras make enough to support themselves and do not cost the city money in upkeep costs — he said those fees are covered by American Traffic Solutions — Kavanaugh said the program didn’t break even until a couple of years ago.
“We were accused of making it a money maker and we never did,” he said.
The program has also changed its scope since the council renewed the contract with ATS in 2012, as the locations of some of the red-light intersection cameras have moved to school zones and the number of vans has dropped from five to two. The vans are deployed to school zones and to neighborhoods where they are requested.
If the issue does go back to the council for a vote, Kavanaugh said he envisions people venting their anger at the vans he said are unpopular among the public while supporting the other facets of the program.
“There’s pretty good support on the council overall in the use of cameras, especially in school zones,” he said.