New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is leaning toward eliminating red-light cameras after a five-year test was fraught with glitches and gripes, even as data showed fewer crashes at intersections with the equipment.
A pilot program begun in 2009 that snaps photos of vehicles running stop signals expires in December, and no lawmaker has sponsored a bill to extend it. Christie, a second-term Republican, has said he’s inclined not to continue the state’s experiment with the cameras, which operate at 76 intersections in 25 municipalities, from Newark to Cherry Hill.
After New York became the first U.S. city to use red-light cameras in the 1990s, more than 500 municipalities in 24 states followed. Some local and state officials are now reconsidering the programs after outcry and lawsuits from drivers who say the equipment is unfair, error-prone and can cause accidents. Last year, the total number of camera programs fell for the first time, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“If a simple human interaction took place between a driver and a police officer, the chances are they would just say don’t let it happen again and give you a warning,” said Scot DeCristofaro, who was mailed an $85 ticket for driving through a red light in Stratford, New Jersey. “There’s no discretion, it becomes a matter of this really being a money grab as opposed to being about safety.”
New Jersey would become the seventh U.S. state, and the most populous, to nullify existing red-light camera programs. Mississippi, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, South Carolina and West Virginia have all backed out, according to Anne Teigen, a spokeswoman for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
DeCristofaro, a 45-year-old title specialist from Haddon Township, said he was confused by a detour when he drove his minivan through the intersection while out shopping with his kids. No other motorists were around, he said. To fight the summons, he must appear in court today.
“I’m seeing some really disturbing things,” Christie, 52, said Sept. 18 on his monthly Ask the Governor call-in radio show. “I have real concerns about it and my inclination is against continuing that program.”
Though Christie and others have their doubts about the experiment, data show that it has worked. For the 23 New Jersey intersections where cameras operated for a full year, right- angle crashes were down 15 percent, rear-enders dropped 3 percent and total wrecks fell 5 percent, according to data analyzed by the state Transportation Department for its 2013 annual report.
In Cherry Hill, a Philadelphia suburb of 70,000 people, more than 75,000 violations of $85 each have been issued since the camera program began in June 2011. Bridget Palmer, a spokeswoman for Mayor Chuck Cahn, called the numbers “scary.”
“It is a valuable law-enforcement and traffic control tool that helps to keep Cherry Hill’s roads safe while freeing up police officers to patrol in other areas across our 26 square miles,” Palmer said in an e-mail.
One of the Cherry Hill program’s most outspoken critics is Rick Short, 47, a self-employed contractor who said several friends and family members have received summonses for running the red light at Route 70 and Springdale Road. He said he’s become a compulsive reader of the reports that towns must file on the program and has found evidence that they are faulty.
“All they use these things for is a profit mill,” Short said. “The whole industry came in like snake-oil salesmen, and no one ever challenges it. No one questions the numbers.”
Lt. William Henkelman, a 14-year veteran of the Englewood Cliffs police department, said Short’s argument is “the easy way out.”
The force there has just 26 officers, making it impossible to have 24-hour policing on one intersection, even if 46,000 cars a day use it, he said. From May 2011 to April 2012 — pre- camera — he said there were 30 accidents at the intersection of Sylvan and Palisades Avenues. Post-camera, that number dropped to 12 between June 2013 and May 2014.
Violations dropped from 17,688 in the program to 9,172 the following year, Henkelman said.
“Almost 18,000 people committing a traffic offense at one intersection is substantial,” Henkelman, 39, said in an interview. “It’s a safer intersection now.”
Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, a Republican from Little Silver who has been one of the most vocal critics of the cameras, said that local politicians became addicted to the money raised. He said research has shown they actually make intersections less safe as drivers slam on brakes to avoid entering an intersection when the light turns yellow.
“Much of the criticism against this program has been hyperbole,” said Charles Territo, a spokesman for Tempe-based American Traffic Solutions, one of the two companies that operates red-light cameras in New Jersey.
“The fact of the matter is this program has done everything it’s designed to do,” Territo said. “Drivers’ behaviors changed in the cities with cameras as a result of this program and that’s a good thing.”
The other camera operator is Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. of Phoenix. In August, its former chief executive officer, Karen Finley, and two other people were indicted on federal corruption charges related to Chicago’s red-light camera contract. Finley, who has been fired by the company, and her co-defendants have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Jim Saunders, Finley’s successor, said Redflex moved swiftly after the firing to adopt industry-leading transparency measures.
“We have the only business model where if it worked we’d put ourselves out of business,” Saunders said in an interview. “It’s about changing behavior — not about violations.”
New Jersey’s program, signed by former Democratic Governor Jon Corzine, has had bumps along the road. In 2012, the state suspended red-light cameras in 21 of the 25 towns for a month to make sure yellow lights met minimum timing requirements.
In August, American Traffic Solutions was forced to void 17,000 New Jersey violations when notices were never sent to offenders because of a computer malfunction.
New Jersey residents are divided on the issue, a Sept. 29 poll by Monmouth University shows. Overall, 44 percent approve of the cameras while 38 disapprove. Drivers who have received a red-light ticket are more opposed. When asked what should happen once the pilot program expires, 39 percent say it should be shut down, 32 percent want it expanded and 26 percent said continue it as a limited test.
O’Scanlon has taken his opposition a step further, with a bill that would forbid New Jersey’s Motor Vehicles Commission from sharing license plate numbers on a national database in an attempt to protect drivers from out-of-state photo ticketing.
“God willing, it does look like we have the momentum on our side,” to end the program in New Jersey, he said.
Because the program was created through legislation, it needs action from lawmakers in order to continue. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat from Sayreville who is chairman of the transportation committee, said so far no bill has been introduced to keep the program alive, though there has been internal discussions.
Christie’s vocal opposition has a “chilling effect” on the prospects of a program that has proven useful, Wisniewski said.
“It’s good public policy to not go through red lights,” he said. “I believe that stopping at red lights is good. Declan O’Scanlon thinks it should be optional.”
With assistance from Andrew Harris in federal court in Chicago.
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