Phenix City Police Department plans to implement more traffic light cameras

tstevens@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 17, 2013 

Drivers may want to watch where they stop in Phenix City, especially if they're driving near the 13th Street Bridge and Broad Street.

Before the end of the year, Phenix City plans to have eight traffic light cameras installed at high traffic areas where accidents regularly occur. Four of these planned locations are placed along US-280, where the amount of traffic has increased and where drivers are at high risk of fatal accidents.

"Those intersections are the ones we have the most violation related crashes and the ones we've had the most red light violations," said Phenix City Police Chief Ray Smith. "Opelika and US-280 is the most dangerous in the city and had the most fatalities. I know we've seen seven in the past 10 years, and that's too many."

Smith said the cameras bring the city up to speed with other areas, like Montgomery and Opelika, that have started implementing the technology.

"It's a new technology that we're getting used to," Smith said. "Montgomery just added an additional 20. We will nowhere near that many cameras."

The process is simple, Smith said. A camera in a box in front of Chick-fil-A captures the violation and the car owner's information is looked up through their tag number. After that, an officer reviews the tape to see if the driver violated the law out of necessity.

If the driver is in violation, a ticket for $100 is sent to the car owner's address. That fine is about half the cost of a citation written by an officer. The citation also will not count against a citizen's driver's license, and repeat offenses do not come with heavier penalties.

The car-owner being at fault means that drivers operating business vehicles should be careful, Smith said.

"This is a civil fine, not a criminal case," Smith said. "It's mainly to get people to remember the safety aspect of the red light. It's the owner that's responsible for the citation. So if you're driving a business vehicle, you're not the one that's going to get the citation. Your employer is."

Thirty-five percent of the fines collected will go towards maintaining and paying for the cameras, Smith said.

Of the eight planned locations, only one has been installed so far at the intersection of 13th Street and Broad Street. The others are pending approval by the Alabama Department of Transportation. However, Phenix City Police Chief Ray Smith said the addition near 13th Street has not gone unnoticed, particularly when it comes to "right-on-red" turns.

"The biggest thing is that it's reminding people that before you go to turn to the right you still have to treat the red light like a stop sign," Smith said. "Not only do you have to stop first before you make the right-hand turn, but you also have to make sure it's clear."

Smith said four locations along US-280 are the next to be installed: one near the Home Depot at US-280/431 North, one in front of the Walmart and US-280/431 North, one at Opelika and US-280, and another one on US-280.

Although the Opelika intersection is the most dangerous, Smith said the city decided to start with the 13th Street and Broad Street intersection because the intersection is a city-maintained thoroughfare. Not only did that allow the department to put up the camera without requesting permission from the Alabama Department of Transportation, but it also delayed construction necessary for cameras installed along US-280.

The Police Department won't be able to determine how much the cameras have been able to reduce traffic accidents and violations until a year has passed. However, the installation has several short term positive effects.

"It frees up our officers to patrol our neighborhoods and focus on our number one concern: burglaries," Smith said. "If you can use one officer to monitor seven intersections, then that's six other officers that don't have to physically monitor the intersection."

The traffic cameras also assist police in determining who's at fault in accidents that occur near the cameras, or in determining if a citation was unduly given.

"If you've got to violate the law in order to get out of the way of an emergency vehicle, or because a car is about to hit you, we're not going to cite you for that," Smith said.

Police can also use footage to look for criminals who cross the river in order to escape justice, as well as try to piece together evidence for crimes that take place around the intersection. The cameras have even aided police in two murder cases: that of Donald LaShon Wilson, 34, on April 28 and the murders of Phillip Demetrius McCoy, 31, and Peter Thomas Sanders, 39, on June 15.

Although some citizens may feel the sting from a ticket in their mailbox, Smith said he hopes the programs will increase traffic safety and save lives.

"Red light running seems like such a small thing, but the results that we see as a police department, the loss of work and the loss of life, it's heartbreaking and it's a reminder that we're driving a 3,000 pound hunk of steel that can do a lot of damage," Smith said. "It's a program that I believe in and I hope it's going to help in our community. It's about time, especially with the increased traffic coming through those intersections."

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