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Photo finish(ed) or not?

Public concerns drive a nationwide backlash against traffic cameras, photo radar
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT That bug-eyed monster at West Burnside Street and 19th Avenue takes more photographs of drivers running red lights than any other red light camera in Portland. Since the camera has been in place, collisions at the intersection have dropped dramatically.

A Los Angeles citizens commission is recommending that the city's red light cameras be decommissioned. Voters in Houston and Anaheim have approved ballot measures to turn off their cities' red light cameras.

It's all part of a backlash against red light cameras, and the even less popular automated photo radar cameras, gaining momentum across the nation. It's happening despite a recent 14-city national survey showing that two out of three Americans favor red light cameras. The survey, by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, also found that seven in 10 Portland residents support red light cameras.

Consider Chicago, where an extensive network of 188 red light cameras has come under siege. A 2009 Chicago Tribune survey found that 53 percent of Illinois residents considered red light cameras 'a good idea.' When they were asked a second question about supporting red light cameras in their neighborhoods, more than half of those polled said no.

READ THE REPORT

• Click here to read the city of Portland's report on red light cameras.

The real puzzler is Houston, where the insurance institute's polling showed 57 percent of voters supported red light cameras - slightly more than the 53 percent who voted to discontinue them in the actual referendum.

Maybe the polling was flawed, or maybe, as an institute spokesman suggests, an impassioned minority - those who resent the automated tickets - came out to vote while supporters of red light cameras stayed home.

Or maybe, we're of two minds about the technology.

If Portlanders are similarly equivocal about red light cameras, they should look at the data, says Dan Anderson, spokesman for Portland's Bureau of Transportation.

A new analysis of Portland's red light camera program makes it hard to dispute the idea that the cameras prevent crashes. The city studied its 10 intersections with cameras - four years before the cameras were in place and four years since they were installed - and found that vehicle collisions were reduced by 42 percent.

'Yes, there are people who don't like red light cameras, but talk to someone who has either been in a red light-running crash or knows someone who has been in one, and they'll tell you different,' Anderson says.

Anderson points to a 1999 Old Dominion University report on the running of red lights, which claimed that one out of three Americans knows someone who was killed or injured in a red light-running collision.

Cole McCann is one of those. McCann lives in Southeast Portland and can't even drive as far as the Oregon Coast because of chronic leg pain from an accident last year at Southeast 122nd Avenue and Powell Boulevard. A woman driving an SUV ran a red light there and McCann's car hit her broadside.

McCann, who hasn't been tagged by a red light camera but did get a photo radar speeding ticket a few years ago, would rather see all the automatic ticketing technology disappear.

'Everybody accidentally runs a red light,' McCann says. 'You space out. Everybody has their bad day.'

Greg Harestad, who recently moved from Southwest Portland to Tualatin, says he knows red light cameras have changed his behavior. In March, Harestad was dinged by a red light camera in Tualatin for not coming to a stop before turning right.

'When I get to a busy intersection I used to occasionally roll through on a right-hand turn. Now I stop,' says the 63-year-old.

Harestad says the cameras may keep people safer, yet he'd still vote to remove them.

'If I roll through I am in fact breaking the law, but there's something inside me that says, 'This is arbitrary,' ' Harestad says. 'It's us against the machines, and it's one more piece of technology that irritates me.'

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Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • Greg Harestad was caught making a right turn on red without stopping on SW Boones Ferry Road and he admits he's turning more cautiously since. But Harestad, like many nationwide, still doesn't like red light cameras.

Shortsighted thinking

Our conflicted views on red light cameras are understandable, says University of Michigan psychologist David Meyer, director of the Brain Cognition and Action Laboratory.

'People don't want to be told what to do when they're in a car,' Meyer says. 'Being in a car makes us feel set off from other people and gives us this sense of invulnerability. You can imagine such feelings would conflict with being surveiled by a video camera. It renders us more vulnerable.'

Psychologist E. Scott Geller, director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems at Virginia Tech University, says those feelings may be understandable, but they're fundamentally immature.

'People do not get it,' Geller says of the increased safety represented by red light cameras.

Geller's research shows the cameras save lives, mostly by getting drivers to slow as soon as they see a yellow light, rather than accelerating to try to make it through the intersection.

'The mature individual is a systems thinker,' Geller says. 'They realize this might cause me some inconvenience, but for the system as a whole it's better.'

But Geller admits that changing attitudes, especially among drivers, is hard work. His center put together a study showing that in Virginia, eight of 10 people buckle their seat belts, but only about five of 10 consistently use their turn signals.

The difference, Geller says, lies in who benefits from each. 'The safety belt saves the individual, but the turn signal is looking out for other people,' Geller says.

As for the contradiction among Illinois residents, who apparently support red light cameras but not in their own neighborhoods, Geller says that is a sign of some shortsighted thinking.

'What people think is, 'It's not happening in my neighborhood. I don't have crashes in my neighborhood. So I would like the liberty of taking some risks,' ' he says.

Everybody speeds

Gary Biler, executive director of the National Motorists Association, doesn't think the surveys showing support for red light cameras are valid. As proof, he points to the 15 cities that have put the matter to voters in recent years.

'So far it's a perfect 15 for 15 that the cameras have been voted down,' says Biler, whose organization opposes red light cameras and automated photo radar for speeders.

Biler expects more cities to reconsider those technologies. Too many drivers don't trust the technology to be mistake-free, and think the cameras are more about generating revenue than making cities safer, he says.

Russ Radar, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says the referendum results simply mean that red light opponents are the ones bothering to vote. Radar also says the Institute's polling shows the majority support automated photo radar for speeders as well, though not as strongly as they support red light cameras.

'Everybody knows running a red light is a dangerous thing to do,' he says. 'People don't see speeding in exactly the same way, because everybody speeds.'


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Tribune File Photo: Sarah Toor • The two cameras at NE 39th and Sandy were among Portland's first, but they don't catch nearly as many red light runners as the camera at West Burnside and 19th Ave.

• Burnside is tops for tickets; city doesn't collect much revenue

By far the most ticketed intersection in the city is West Burnside Street at 19th Avenue. The automatic camera captures drivers heading eastbound. In 2009, it caught 2,330 drivers, and in 2010, a total of 871 were cited for running red lights there.

In second place, but closing fast, is the westbound signal at Southeast Foster Road and 96th Avenue. In 2009, 1,005 citations were issued for red light running there, and in 2010 the number jumped to 1,393.

Third place goes to the intersection at Northeast Sandy Boulevard and 39th Avenue, but depending on how you count these things, it could be second. There are two cameras there, photographing both northbound and westbound drivers. The westbound drivers appear to be catching on. In 2009, 1,769 red light runners were cited there, but in 2010 that number dropped to 920.

• The overall number of red light citations dropped last year in Portland. In 2010, 7,329 total red light camera tickets were issued in the city, down from 11,050 the year before. Photo radar tickets for speeding are much more common. In 2010, 22,810 Portland speeders were caught on camera and cited.

• About half the time the camera catches a red light runner, the citation is never issued. The city program requires that the photographs show a clearly identifiable driver and license plate. If the photo of either isn't clear enough, no ticket is sent. And if the photo shows a woman driving a car registered to a man, or vice versa, the city eats the ticket because it won't be able to prove who was driving the car.

• Red light running citations require drivers to pay a $237 fine, but fighting the ticket almost always pays off. If the citation is a driver's first for running a red light, judges typically reduce the fine to $178. After court costs and payment to the private vendor who processes the photos, the city's take comes to about $33 per ticket.

• In Los Angeles, as in many cities, about three of every four red light tickets are issued to drivers making right turns on red without coming to a complete stop. Portland uses its cameras to cite only those drivers who run red lights, not for right turns.

• Polls show that many people believe the cameras generate revenue, but a new Portland Bureau of Transportation analysis shows that when the cost of leasing and running the cameras is added to the initial expense of installing them, they actually operate at a slight loss. The city of Chicago owns its cameras, cites for rolling right turns on red lights and took in $64 million in revenue from its cameras in 2009.

- Peter Korn