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Breaking down the data from Delaware's red light cameras

Traffic safety advocates raised concerns after Wilmington's first red light camera report in 15 years showed scanty data and increasing revenues.

The city says the cameras are working -- but their report, commissioned by AAA MId-Atlantic, doesn't include much detail to support that claim.

AAA says they need to do more to prove the program isn't just a money-maker. As our Annie Ropeik reports, they point to red light programs run by DelDOT in places like Dover, where cameras have caused a steady decline in violations -- and in revenue -- over the years.

Traffic whizzes by at the corner of Route 13 and White Oak Road in Dover. It's one of eight or so intersections in the city with red light cameras, and it's not uncommon to see them flash when a driver cuts it a little too close trying to make it through a yellow light.

ROPEIK: I've been sitting here for about five or six cycles of the light and I've seen it go off pretty much every other time. It just turned yellow, so we'll see if it happens this time. [traffic noise] There we go, we got one. So that person sped up right at the end of that yellow light to try to make it through -- I think it was that red pickup up there -- and that's going to be about a $100 ticket for that person.

According to the numbers, Dover's cameras are actually working. They've been making less money off them, but that means fewer people are violating the traffic laws where the cameras can see them -- which means, in theory, those intersections are getting safer.

That's as compared to a city like Wilmington, where limited public data doesn't show much decline in violations and, in fact, shows an increase in revenue.

Scott Koenig is city manager for Dover. He's been watching their DelDOT-operated cameras come and go around the city for years.

"The camera system works, because I've actually received one in the past," he says.

He says DelDOT runs cameras at up to nine high-volume, dangerous crossings in the state capital -- mostly on Route 13.

"So that's how the intersections are analyzed," he says. "Accident data [shows] that there's a lot of right-angle collisions or collisions where it's apparent that people are running the red lights."

"The revenue is kind of a bonus associated with it."

  Across the state, DelDOT's 2014 red light camera report shows a 30 percent reduction in crashes caused by running a red light. That's from the three years before camera installation compared to the eight years after.

Meanwhile, revenue from violations -- that's the surplus left over after ticket fees are used to pay for the program -- has declined steadily statewide and in Newark. And in Dover, revenue dropped from close to $1 million in 2010 to around $300,000 in 2012 and '13 -- but rose again sharply the year after. Koenig says that's due in part to some equipment having been out of service.

Overall, though, he says declining revenues show a change in driver behavior -- and an increase in public safety. And that, he says, is their primary goal.

"The revenue is kind of a bonus associated with it," Koenig says.

That's what folks like Jim Lardear like to hear. He's a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

"These things need to be done for safety as their primary focus," Lardear says. "Revenue generation can really cloud why you're doing the program, if you're looking to raise money."

He's worried that could happen in the city of Wilmington. They made $3.1 million off 34 locally-run red light cameras in 2013 and '14.

AAA Mid-Atlantic requested Wilmington's first-ever red light camera report, after 15 years where no data was made public. And Lardear says what they got didn't include enough detail -- especially when city revenue off camera violations is on the rise.

"While we take nothing for granted when a jurisdiction maybe says their program is based on safety and not revenue generation, we were looking for assurances from the city, and the report kind of falls short," he says. "And it did raise some concern with us about the lack of crash data analysis.

Wilmington's report only includes the past two fiscal years, and shows violations in that time jumped up more than 25 percent. Crashes increased 5 percent across the board, with decreases at some intersections.

"This is not a program that we are sitting here saying, 'Let's line the city's pockets with additional dollars.'"

But moreover, Lardear says, the report includes no details about types of crashes -- the kind of data DelDOT does keep for the programs it runs. Lardear says Wilmington needs to include that data next year to prove its program is effective -- and give a sense of what crossings might need permanent safety improvements.

"It's really important to understand what's going on at these intersections, and make sure the cameras are indeed decreasing crashes and increasing pedestrian and motorist safety and bicyclist safety at these intersections," he says. "But without that data, how do you know if the program's working?"

Wilmington city officials say they do plan to include detail on types of crashes in their 2015 report, due out in January. Still, deputy finance director Stephanie Collins wanted to make one thing clear:

"This is not a program that we are sitting here saying, 'Let's line the city's pockets with additional dollars.' That's not it at all," she says. "It is really a safety program, and we would hope our motorists would view it as that."

She and finance director Sheila Winfrey-Brown say a big part of the uptick in violations between 2013 and '14 is that they tasked one retired police sergeant with reviewing all violations, instead of dividing the labor among different people. That sergeant, Brown says, is catching more that merits tickets. But, she adds:

"The staff is currently compiling the data for FY2015, and what we're seeing is that there is a reduction in our violations," Brown says, though she says it's still more than they'd been seeing in the past.

Still, Brown hopes the cameras are affecting driver behavior, though she recognizes some people will always choose to blow a light and get a ticket anyway.

"So this really is driver behavior-generated," she says. "As our drivers stay in compliance with the legislation, we'll see an even bigger decrease in the number of violations that are issued."

And for the tickets that do still go out, the revenue will still go into the city's general fund, where it's set aside for road maintenance and, in Dover, public safety.


DelDOT Red Light Camera Report FY14

Wilmington Red Light Camera Report FY14

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