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D.C. Red-Light Cameras Fail to Reduce Accidents

D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said citations for red-light running have dropped by about 60 percent at intersections that have the cameras.
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said citations for red-light running have dropped by about 60 percent at intersections that have the cameras. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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The number of crashes and injury collisions at intersections with cameras rose steadily through 2001, then dipped through 2003 before spiking again last year.

The results were similar or worse than figures at intersections that have traffic signals but no cameras. The number of overall crashes at those 1,520 locations increased 64 percent; injury and fatal crashes rose 54 percent; and broadside collisions rose 17 percent.

Overall, total crashes in the city rose 61 percent, from 11,333 in 1998 to 18,250 last year.

Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the data reinforce the motor club's view that the red-light effort is targeted more at generating revenue than at reducing crashes. "They are making a heck of a lot of money, and they are picking the motorists' pockets on the pretense of safety," he said.

Red-light cameras are used in 12 states, including Maryland, where they are deployed in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. In Virginia, the General Assembly eliminated red-light cameras this year partly because of concerns raised by some legislators about civil liberties. The action affected six Northern Virginia jurisdictions: Alexandria, Arlington County, Fairfax City, Fairfax County, Falls Church and Vienna.

The District installed its first batch of 26 cameras in 1999. City officials added 14 the next year. Some intersections have more than one camera to cover different approaches. All told, the cameras installed in 1999 and 2000 covered 38 intersections; a camera subsequently was removed from one of them.

Ramsey said city officials put the cameras where police noticed the most red-light running. At the start of the program, police officials said they also received advice on camera placement from residents and from the private contractor that operated the devices.

Nine more cameras were installed in July, boosting the number of monitored intersections to 45. Most of those drivers ticketed come from outside the city. In August, for example, less than one-fourth of the citations were issued to motorists from the District.

D.C. police also operate photo-radar devices that take pictures of speeding motorists. Because many of these cameras are mobile and used at varying times, they were not included in The Post's review.

Douglas Noble, the chief traffic engineer for the D.C. Department of Transportation, said his office was examining crash data and plans to review the red-light camera locations. The department collects the data from police reports and advises police about where to install the devices.

Noble said that no studies have been conducted on the District's red-light cameras in several years but that he "would not disagree" with The Post's analysis. "I don't necessarily have an explanation" for the trends, he said.

He added that he believes the severity of injury crashes has decreased at camera locations. The city crash database does not categorize the severity of crashes.


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