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Phenix City eyes red-light cameras

Red-light runners in many cities are as much a part of the daily commute as coffee to-go and talk radio. In some of the more traveled parts of Phenix City, the question isn't whether one hurried motorist will disregard a changing traffic signal, but how many will barrel through the intersection after him.

"I would feel pretty comfortable in saying that most people that ride the U.S. 280 Bypass definitely have a complaint about people running red lights," Police Chief Ray Smith said. "That's one of the major concerns and phone calls I get in my office."

City officials are hoping to shift that trend into reverse, eyeing a technology that municipalities are increasingly exploring around the state. A local bill expected to pass the Alabama Legislature would allow Phenix City to install red-light cameras at problematic intersections.

The cameras catch red-light runners in the act, providing photographic proof of violations that's used to issue citations to motorists through the mail. The revenue generally is divided between a municipality and the vendor that installs and maintains the cameras.

"By no means would we put red-light cameras on every single red light in town -- that's not what it's designed to do," Smith said. "What it's designed to do is to look at your most problem intersections like Opelika Road and U.S. 280, intersections that have a lot of crashes in them and a lot of red-light violations on top of that."

Though controversial at times, red-light cameras have been embraced by a number of law enforcement agencies and are in use in about 555 communities nationwide, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. If the City Council adopts the measure, Phenix City would join the company of Opelika, Ala., which recently awarded a contract to Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions and is looking to install cameras at about five busy intersections.

Supporters say the devices are a proven deterrent that cuts down on the violent "right-angle" crashes that often accompany red-light running. Critics, some of whom have dubbed the technology "scameras," invoke the perils of a Big Brother society and claim the cameras are a money-making scheme.

"I think if it helps to save one life, it's worth it," said state Rep. Lesley Vance, R-Phenix City, who sponsored the local bill. "Of course, you're going to have some people that gripe about it once they get a ticket."

About 165,000 people are injured a year because of red-light runners, according to the institute, and more than half of the fatalities in those crashes aren't the people who ran the light.

"It's a huge problem," said Shauna Hallmark, an associate professor at Iowa State University who has studied red-light cameras. "People will complain about the cameras and I'll say, 'When somebody in your family gets hit by a red-light runner, you're going to be back tomorrow asking me how you get the cameras in your city.'"

The cameras have extended the reach of law enforcement and allowed officers to avoid hazardous pursuits.

"The problem with red-light running is that cops can't catch people running red lights," Hallmark added. "Even if you sit at the intersection, you have to run the red light to catch them."

Some municipalities have been wary of backroom expenses associated with issuing citations and have chosen not to implement cameras. In Columbus, a review committee determined several years ago that the cameras weren't in the best interest of the city, in part because there weren't enough right-angle collisions to justify the cost of verifying automated violations, said Ron Hamlett, the city traffic engineer.

"From the police department's standpoint, that means they'd have to hire another person to do that because all of their resources are allocated," Hamlett said. "We just didn't see that for the cost that you would put out that we'd gain that much of a benefit."

While photographs of violations leave little wiggle room for motorists to deny wrongdoing -- the cameras capture multiple images of a vehicle, including its tag number -- jurisdictions have provided appeals processes to weed out inappropriate citations, a safeguard Smith said would be employed in Phenix City. But critics have said automated fines erode due process because they presume guilt, and many violators have refused to pay fines or filed lawsuits claiming they're unconstitutional.

"It's not about safety at all," said Henry Bentley, an Apopka, Fla., activist who started the website "Some of the municipalities are shortening the yellow lights to entrap more people."

Bentley pointed to cities like Houston and Los Angeles, which recently abandoned controversial red-light camera programs, as evidence that the technology is untenable.

"They're being challenged all over the place on the constitutionality issue," he said. "The movement is getting stronger and stronger by the day."

East Alabama trend?

The local legislation, House Bill 575, was introduced this session, but red-light cameras have been on Phenix City's radar for more than two years. In October 2009, the City Council passed a resolution to negotiate a contract with LaserCraft to install cameras after a traffic study and legislative approval.

"Before we came in office and since then, we've had so many people running traffic lights," said City Councilman Jimmy Wetzel. "We have them running them all over town, and down over the years we've had several people get killed down on the U.S. 280 Bypass because of people running red lights."

A number of city officials said they weren't sure why the red-light cameras haven't advanced more quickly since the 2009 resolution. A few months after council voted, LaserCraft was acquired by American Traffic Solutions, the vendor serving Opelika and Montgomery, Ala., among many other cities.

"I'm not sure where they were in the process back then," said Charles Territo, an ATS spokesman who said the company is following Vance's bill. "Certainly we would be honored to have an opportunity to work with them on their road-safety camera program."

Phenix City's plans could be put on ice by a competing piece of legislation that would require Alabama cities to remove their red-light cameras. But that bill, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, hasn't gained much traction, Vance said.

Still, Phenix City would be many months from installing its first cameras. Smith, the police chief, said the city will have a traffic study conducted and review crash data to determine where and whether any cameras are needed.

"Most of the chiefs that I know of and work with have seen good evidence showing that the accidents that occur after the installation of those red-light cameras typically are less severe and don't have the T-bone crashes," Smith said. "They're more like the rear-end type crashes, so you have less injuries when you do have accidents, and the accidents themselves are actually reduced."

The two most likely locations for red-light cameras are the intersections of U.S. 280 and Opelika Road and U.S. 280 and U.S. 80, Smith said, which are among the busiest in town.

The fine for running a red light in Phenix City is $174 -- $154 of which comes from court costs. The civil fine issued by an automated system would likely be far less than that, Smith said, in part because there would be no court costs.

"If you don't pay the civil fine, it goes to a collection agency and it goes on your credit rating -- not your driving history," Smith said. "You can't be put in jail for it."

In Opelika, red-light cameras likely will be placed at intersections along U.S. 280, including at least one near TigerTown. Mayor Gary Fuller has told skeptics he hopes the city won't have to collect a nickel from automated fines.

"If you don't run a red light, you will never have a thing to worry about," he said in a telephone interview. "Our city government is funded appropriately, and we're not counting on revenue from this to fund city government or public safety. We're trying to make our community safer."

Fuller said the cameras are an opportunity the city would be remiss to pass over.

"My argument was if we didn't want to use technology, then we shouldn't have radios in police cars and we shouldn't have radar units in police cars," he said. "All of these things are advances in technology to help our police officers be more efficient and do a better job."

Gary Loper, 72, knows first hand the dangers of red-light runners. A retired claims manager for State Farm, he said two of the biggest factors in crashes are speed and red-light violations.

About five years ago, Loper was struck by a distracted motorist who ran a red light in Opelika.

"We have a problem I think almost everywhere, but especially on the main highways," he said. "My wife and I and a lot of people I know, when the light changes to green, we wait on people to run the red light from the other direction before we move forward."