Red-light cameras reduce crashes in Baton Rouge, study says

It’s been five years since Baton Rouge launched a traffic light camera program, and data released last week by the camera company and the city-parish shows drops in both traffic crashes and violations at the selected intersections.

Baton Rouge’s Department of Public Works evaluated intersections where traffic cameras were installed in 2008 and 2009 by comparing the average number of crashes in the years before and after the cameras took effect.

The study showed a sharp decline in right-angle crashes — considered the most dangerous type of collisions — but also showed slight increases in rear-end crashes.

There was an average of 69 right-angle crashes in 2006 and 2007 in total at intersections where cameras were installed in 2008. The right-angle crashes at those locations dropped to a combined average of 41 per year for the years 2009 through 2011, or a decline of 40 percent.

In the same time frame, rear-end collisions for the designated intersections increased by 4 percent and total injuries for all collisions dropped 15 percent.

Rear-end collisions often spike when cameras are installed as cautious drivers tend to stop suddenly to avoid being ticketed, city-parish officials say, but rear-end collisions generally result in less significant injury and property damage than right-angle crashes.

Of 19 intersections that still have traffic cameras, 13 showed reductions in traffic light violations between the first year they were installed and 2012, according to data provided by American Traffic Solutions, the company overseeing the city-parish camera program.

John Price, an assistant chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden, called the red light cameras a “model program” that’s enforcing the law and improving driver safety.

“This is a program that penalizes the people who are running red lights. If you’re not one of those subset, then you don’t have to worry about it,” Price said. “You should be happy that it’s out there to protect you and your loved ones.”

Charley Territo, a spokesman for American Traffic Solutions, said the reduction in violations demonstrates that the cameras are changing driver behavior for the better.

The most significant drop in violations was found at Winbourne Avenue and Victoria Drive — from 2,962 violations in its first full year in 2009 to 1,033 violations in 2012.

The 65 percent drop in violations is likely related to the Victoria Drive road closure from October 2011 to February 2012 for sewer line construction work.

On average about 98,000 drivers passed through the intersection on a monthly basis, but in February 2012, the average dropped to 28,000.

Price acknowledges that road construction work across the parish, which has been particularly active in the past three years, could skew the numbers.

Territo said there’s a direct correlation between the volume of traffic that passes through an intersection and the number of violations, noting that was the reason some intersections saw increases in violations over the years.

Sherwood Forest at N. Harrells Ferry’s violations increased by 17 percent from 2009 to 2012. But Territo said the traffic volume also grew from 5 million to 5.5 million cars per year.

On the other hand, the intersection of Scotland Avenue and Blount Road showed a 53 percent decrease in violations from 2009 to 2012, even though traffic volume grew from 3.5 million to 4 million over those years.

Territo said that’s an example of drivers changing their behavior as a result of the cameras.

State Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, said the cameras may cause drivers to be more cautious at a particular intersection, but disagreed that it’s universally changing driver behavior.

“If you put a cop at an intersection and he writes 10 tickets one week, and the next week he writes no tickets, well that’s because everyone knows that he’s there,” Arnold said. “You’ve only changed behavior for that particular intersection.”

Arnold has tried unsuccessfully over the past few to get bills passed in the state Legislature that would force governments to put the use of traffic cameras to a vote of the people.

He said cities rely on traffic cameras to generate millions of dollars at the expense of due process rights.

He noted that violations captured via traffic cameras are civil matters, because cameras cannot be used alone to convict someone of a criminal offense.

“You’re guilty until proven innocent,” he said. “If a police officer pulls me over for the same thing — it’s a criminal violation. Why should it be any different? A ticket is a ticket.”

This year, the cameras are projected to generate about $1.6 million in revenue that goes to the Baton Rouge Police Department budget.

The fines are $117 per ticket, with a $35 dollar late fee. The city-parish receives 65 percent of fine collections from the first notice to violators and 55 percent if a second notice must be sent.

The city-parish’s contract with ATS will expire at the end of the year, and Price said he would like the Metro Council to extend it for another five years.

Metro Councilman Ryan Heck said he won’t support an extension.

“I’ve been concerned about this program because of the intention behind it,” Heck said. “It is a public safety issue or is it a way to generate revenue for the city? What exactly is it?”

He said using cameras to enforce the law because they’re available is not a good enough reason to continue the program.

“Why don’t we just use cameras to enforce every law then?” Heck said.

John Bowman, spokesman with the National Motorists Association, said his organization opposes the use of red light cameras because they don’t effectively improve safety and are employed as a revenue generator for cities.

He said cities could improve intersection safety by lengthening the yellow light time.

“That’s been shown to be very effective in reducing the number of accidents and the number of violations as well,” Bowman said. “You can take cameras out of the equation entirely if traffic safety is the true goal.”

But Price said the cameras are enforcing traffic laws more effectively and efficiently than law enforcement is able to do.

“I believe in my heart of hearts that if you have a program that you can do more effectively, that’s more fair than the old program, that is safer and it pays for itself and provides money for public safety — then that is a great program,” he said.