Red-Light Flouters Face Return of A Familiar Foe

By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 26, 2007

Motorists beware: The red-light cameras are coming back to Northern Virginia.

Many jurisdictions are pushing ahead with plans to install -- or reinstall -- cameras that will snap pictures of people running red lights at key intersections. Those caught will get $50 tickets for each violation.

Alexandria, Falls Church, Fairfax City and Arlington County will be among the first local governments to get the cameras operating again. Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties are heading in the same direction.

"We've internally started up the machinery," said Fairfax City Manager Robert L. Sisson. "We're dusting off the intersections and getting to work."

The actions mark the resurrection of a movement that began in the mid-1990s, when a group of Northern Virginia cities and counties, along with many other governments in the region and across the country, began pilot programs that used cameras to catch lawbreakers speeding through traffic signals. By 2005, there were 38 cameras operating at major intersections in Northern Virginia, allowing jurisdictions to document thousands of traffic violations each year.

But critics questioned whether the cameras enhanced safety, complained that technology flaws allowed some people to be falsely ticketed and worried that some officials would use the cameras to generate revenue. Some legislators from rural parts of the state also considered the cameras a Big Brother-like intrusion on civil liberties. In 2005, the Virginia General Assembly decided not to renew the trial program, and local jurisdictions reluctantly shut down the cameras.

Many law enforcement officers then lobbied the legislature to reconsider. They said the cameras, particularly when deployed at the most hazardous intersections, save lives because they encourage drivers to slow down. Some cameras also save lives because they are able to trigger a two-second delay in a traffic signal when they detect a driver running a red light -- a delay that helps protect other motorists from head-on collisions.

In March, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) signed a bill that allows jurisdictions with populations of more than 10,000 to install cameras starting July 1. Local governments are allowed to install one camera for each 10,000 inhabitants, and are limited to a $50 fine per photographed infraction. A police officer must examine every photographed case, and alleged violators will have a chance to appeal.

"We're obviously very pleased about the Virginia legislation," said Nicole Gobbo, a Falls Church spokeswoman. "It's a very important tool for us in improving passenger and traffic safety."

Falls Church caught an average of 9,000 red-light violators each year from 2001 to 2005 at the four intersections that had cameras, Gobbo said. Falls Church plans to restart its program July 1, as does Alexandria.

"The point is: It's effective," said Alexandria Police Lt. Paul Story. "It's the nuisance value. Even a $50 ticket reduces violations."

Some jurisdictions are considering installing the cameras for the first time, including Prince William County.

The law also requires governments to tell residents where the red-light cameras are located. Local officials who are restarting the program said they don't know yet where cameras will be placed because they are still studying accident reports to decide where they are most needed.

But a few such intersections quickly came to mind for police officials. Arlington Police Capt. Paul Larson said he has identified 19 of them, including the intersections of Route 50 and Fillmore Street; Route 50 and Manchester Street; Columbia Pike and South Glebe Road; Jefferson Davis Highway and South Glebe Road; and Lee Highway and North Lynn Street.

Among the intersections "most in need" in Falls Church, Gobbo said, are Annandale Road and Hillwood Avenue; Marshall and Washington streets; and West Broad and Birch streets.

Fairfax City expects to install "eight to 10," Sisson said, including some near George Mason University, where traffic has increased as the student population has grown.

In Loudoun County, officials have mentioned as possibilities three Route 7 crossings at Sterling Boulevard, Countryside Boulevard and Potomac View Road. But at $50 a ticket, the cameras will only generate enough money to pay for the equipment and processing of the paperwork, said Kraig Troxell, a spokesman for the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office.

"We're looking to improve voluntary compliance, not to make money here," he said.

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