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Status Report, Vol. 46, No. 1 | SPECIAL ISSUE: RED LIGHT RUNNING | February 1, 2011 Subscribe

City uses cameras as safety tool, not moneymaker

If the purpose of red light cameras is to raise cash from unsuspecting drivers, officials in Springfield, Mo., did everything wrong.

Before even switching on their cameras in June 2007, traffic engineers reduced red light running by changing the length of yellow lights to make signals consistent across the city. The launch of the cameras was preceded by a major education campaign urging drivers to "respect red," and once cameras were installed their locations were clearly marked. Officials put the cameras at intersections with the biggest traffic volumes to get the message to the greatest number of drivers, though those intersections weren't necessarily where the most violations occurred.

So what happened with that easy money for the budget? Two years and eight months after the cameras were switched on, the program was $33,000 in the red.

Fortunately for the city, making money was never the goal. Improving safety was, and by that measure, the cameras were a success. City officials say their data show red light running crashes decreased both at camera-equipped intersections and citywide. Citations fell 36 percent to an average of 1.05 a day per camera.

Springfield traffic engineer Jason Haynes says the fact that the program didn't make money helped to maintain community support. Another plus was that the vendor operating Springfield's cameras had no vested interest in busting drivers. Instead of paying the company per violation, Springfield paid a flat fee for each camera.

The biggest key to the program's success, says Earl Newman, who recently retired as Springfield's assistant director of public works, is that the city first did all it could from a traffic engineering standpoint to reduce red light running. That meant fixing the yellow timing problem, which the city discovered as it was preparing to install the cameras. The problem stemmed from the fact that some intersections were controlled by the state and others by the city, and the state signals had longer yellow times. There was rampant red light running at the city intersections, perhaps because drivers used to state roads weren't expecting the lights to change so quickly.

Springfield and the state transportation department worked out a compromise, lengthening the yellow phase at many signals and shortening it slightly at others. Only after giving drivers months to get used to the new times did the city switch on the cameras, which led to a further reduction in red light running.

City surveys showed high support for red light cameras, but the program had determined opponents. A legal challenge brought the program to a halt last March, when the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that Springfield's administrative hearing process for contested citations was inadequate.

Haynes says the city's lawyers have come up with a fix and that a new contract for cameras is in the works. But Newman says he's not sure whether the program has much of a future now that violations have fallen so low. Too few citations could mean the red light cameras won't pay for themselves.

"Money is the issue here whether we like it or not," he says. People don't want the cameras to make money, but "as soon as it comes to the point of the taxpayers paying for it, it's a problem again."

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