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Red Light; Gold Mine

By Brad Kane

February 13, 2012

Putting red light cameras at intersections is big business.

And it's a business that could be coming to Connecticut soon, if the governor has his way.

Phoenix-based Redflex Traffic Systems generated $106.3 million in revenue and $25.6 million in earnings from 2,060 red light cameras installed in 261 cities in the United States and Canada.

Rival American Traffic Solutions of Scottsdale, Ariz., receives $4,500 per camera per intersection per month for its typical contract. The company operates more than 3,000 cameras for 230 communities in 21 states, including New York and New Jersey.

As Connecticut legislators consider allowing the state's larger cities to install cameras to record motorists running red lights and issue traffic fines, the fine points of the would-be law will dictate who gets paid, how they get paid and how much motorists fork over every time they are caught on camera.

"The intent of the legislation is to promote public safety and not as a revenue producer," said State Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney (D-New Haven), a proponent of the legislation.

That high-road position is common in the debate over legalizing the cameras, but it's not always a winning one.

A total of 21 states plus Washington, D.C. have laws allowing red light cameras while another seven specifically prohibit them. Various studies have shown the cameras decrease red light running by 60 percent, decrease right-angle collisions by 25 percent, and increase rear-end collisions by 15 percent, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Fatalities caused by red light running are declining; 1,009 people were killed by red light running in 2001 and that number shrank steadily to 676 in 2009, the last year data was available.

The cameras work through sensors that trigger the camera whenever a motorist runs a red light. The camera then takes photos and video of the offending vehicle and sends those images to the operator of the system, typically the company that sold the camera such as Redflex or ATS. After the images are reviewed by a police officer, a citation is issued to the offender.

"One of the benefits of having a video is it eliminates some of the he said/she said when a police officer writes a ticket or even when a crash occurs," said Charles Territo, ATS vice president of communications.

The business behind red light cameras varies by state and is dictated by individual legislation.

Only four states hold the driver accountable for the offense; the other 17 put the onus on the registered owner of the vehicle, much like a parking ticket. Only three states treat the citation issued by a red light camera the same as a ticket issued by a police officer subject to points against a driver's license and insurance increase; the rest treated them similar to a parking ticket. Fines range from $50 to $300.

Contracts with red light camera companies break down in two ways. One calls for the city to pay a flat monthly fee to the contractor to install and operate the system. The other gives the contractor a percentage of each fine paid. The Federal Highway Administration recommends against giving the companies a percentage of the fine because that could be conceived as a conflict of interest to impartially determining if a motorists committed an offense.

"It is up to the city and the legislators to decide what makes the best sense for their communities," Territo said.

The proposed Connecticut legislation would allow but not require communities of more than 60,000 people to install red light cameras at certain intersections. The communities would be required to post warning signs to let motorists know red light cameras are in use.

Similar legislation last year called for a $125 fine for running a red light, but Gov. Dannel Malloy said he would prefer a $70-$75 fine. The money would be split between the state and the community. The fine would be assessed against the registered owner of the vehicle and be treated like a parking ticket, not subject to driver's license points or insurance increases.

The Transportation Committee would have to decide whether there will be a restriction on whether the system can be operated by an outside company, Looney said, and if those contractors can receive a percentage of each fine paid.

"It is a useful measure that cities like Hartford and New Haven are interested in," Looney said.

ATS flat fee contracts, which typically run five years, allow communities to pay only what the red light cameras generate. A typical contract calls for a $4,500 monthly fee per camera per intersection; but if the camera only generates $2,300 in fines in a given month, then the city pays $2,300 for that month. If the camera generates more than $4,500, then the city keeps the overage.

Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra and State Sen. John Fonfara (D-Hartford) in January called for red light cameras at intersections around the city, making the announcement at Hartford Hospital where two pedestrians were killed by a motorist running a red light in 2010.

Fonfara said the police department doesn't have the manpower necessary to monitor problem intersections at all times.

"We have the technology to monitor this problem now," Fonfara said. "If we have the technology, why wouldn't we want to do that?"

The cameras are meant to prevent red light running and if successful should result in fewer fines issued over time, Fonfara said.

"There's no real financial benefit," Fonfara said. "It is not a moneymaker. It is more about deterrence."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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