By Christy Goodman and Megan Buerger
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 1:18 PM
Don't run that red light. The intersection is probably monitored by a camera.
Since the first red-light cameras were installed in Arlington County in 1995, jurisdictions throughout the Washington region began snapping scofflaws, collecting fines as high as $75. Now, about 158 intersections are wired, and more will be soon.
The devices are growing in popularity and got a boost from a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that found traffic fatalities at District intersections with photo enforcement dropped 26 percent from 2004 to 2008.
Despite objections from people who say the cameras are to raise revenue and those who dislike the feeling that "big brother" is watching, Maryland and the District are increasing their extensive inventories.
Cameras will be installed in about a year at District intersections that have demonstrated a need, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier told The Washington Post this month.
AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson criticized the District's automated enforcement program.
"Police continue to say what a great job the red-light cameras are doing saving lives," he said. "Well, if people are learning from their mistakes, they shouldn't be running the red lights anymore. Revenue should have plummeted by now, and it hasn't. The District is making as much, if not more, revenue than ever. That tells me the system is corrupt."
The District, in the lead with 52 wired intersections, began installing cameras in 1999, after a citywide survey showed that unsafe driving was residents' top safety concern.
The District's 37 wired intersections in 2000 generated $7.2 million. Five years and eight additional intersections later, revenue dropped to less than $5 million, but it jumped back to $7.2 million in 2009.
"The council and police staff swear it isn't about revenue, but that's just crazy," Anderson said. "To say it is a cash cow is an understatement; it is a cash herd."
Lanier, however, disagrees.
"We are not doing this for revenue but to modify driving behavior," she said. "We attribute much of the success we've had in reducing traffic fatalities to our photo-enforcement initiatives. Our traffic fatalities have been cut in half in four years. The results speak for themselves."
In Virginia, officials are navigating new laws after a two-year ban on red-light cameras.
Legislators who questioned their legitimacy imposed the ban in 2005, after the cameras had been active for a decade. As a result, Alexandria, Arlington County, Fairfax City, Fairfax County, Falls Church and Vienna removed their systems.
"I really think it is a horrendous invasion of privacy and a dishonest way for local governments to raise revenue," said Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large).
Virginia began allowing cameras again in 2007. Arlington and Falls Church are the only Northern Virginia jurisdictions that have been able to get through what officials describe as a lengthy Department of Transportation approval process.
"The legislature reversed itself and eliminated the ability to use them. . . . The legislature reversed itself again, but added a lot of hoops you had to jump through to put them in again," said Falls Church Vice Mayor David F. Snyder. "We went through the process because our citizens thought they were an important safety device."
Snyder said that the law "is barely tolerable," and that its constraints "eliminate the potential safety effectivness."
Traffic volume, officer safety information and crash data are among the areas that Virginia Department of Transportation officials study before allowing a jurisdiction to add a camera.
Arlington took about nine months to get its traffic and engineering analysis approved, county police Capt. Kamran Afzal said. He said that he likes that an independent body approves each camera.
"What we are trying to do is increase safety and not necessarily trying to increase revenue," Afzal said. "This takes the decision away from the municipality and puts it in the hands of VDOT. We have no dog in the fight, so to speak."
More revenue was lost than gained, according to a 2005 Virginia Transportation Research Council study. It analyzed data from the seven jurisdictions with cameras, including Virginia Beach, and measured operational costs against ticket revenue.
Alexandria, Vienna and Fairfax County lost $42,000 to $97,000 per year. Gains in Falls Church, Fairfax City and Arlington ranged from $545 to $12,500 per year.
To date, Arlington and Falls Church have no comparable data for the cameras recently installed.
Arlington's new cameras, which became operational June 21, had brought in slightly more than $100,000, as of Dec. 31, Afzal said. The county had issued about 3,500 tickets, as of Feb. 11, and has a 70 percent compliance rate. The county spends up to $3,850 a month to operate each camera.
Falls Church turned on its still and video cameras, which cost $14,200 monthly, Dec. 18. Police issued 758 warnings during the first month of operation, said Sgt. Pilar M. Welmen, head of Falls Church's intersection safety program.
Alexandria is considering getting cameras, but the area's larger counties are not. Loudoun County officials have not discussed the devices for years.
Fairfax officials said the county does not have cameras because of financing.
"There is so much controversy with these lights," said Eugene Delgaudio, a Loudoun County supervisor. "Privacy, cost and unintended consequences . . . individuals who actually crash because the guy in front them stops too soon because they don't want to be on the cameras."
Maryland officials have not appeared to have such qualms. Since cameras began being installed there in the late 1990s, counties have experienced overall constituent support.
"We've received numerous citizens' requests for more lights, and we're determining where and how many of these cameras are going to go in," said Capt. Thomas Didone, director of traffic operations in Montgomery County, which has 37 camera-covered intersections. He said the county could double that amount and add video within five years.
"Initially, we had some complaints," Didone said. "But everyone seems to understand the gravity of running a red light."
The cameras' "cut-and-dry nature," combined with the consequences of running a red light, make tickets difficult to dispute, he said.
Although Maryland counties are not fighting opposition to keep their cameras in place, the cameras aren't generating much profit.
In the first five years of operating red-light cameras in Charles County, the program was in the red, said Diane Richardson, a Charles County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman. Now, the revenue generated supports maintenance and the salary of the officer reviewing the violations.
"I think there is a strong perception that these cameras are money machines," she said. "But in Charles County, we're barely making money off of the cameras. We're just making the roads safe."
Howard County was the first Maryland jurisdiction to install red-light cameras, in 1998, followed by Prince George's County in 2001. Both counties reported averaging more than $1 million in annual revenue over the past few years, excluding operating costs.
Montgomery has removed a camera from Great Seneca Highway at Longdraft Road because the number of red-light runners declined there.
"These cameras are meant to put themselves out of business," Didone said.
email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org$7.2 million
Revenue generated from cameras in the District in 2009.0
Number of signs Maryland law requires to be posted where cameras are in use.34%
The amount Virginia ticketing dropped from 1995 to 2005.
About the fines
3 Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Charles counties and the District adhere to a flat ticket rate of $75 per violation, and some also charge a late fee if the citation is not paid within 30 days.
3The vehicle's owner is responsible for paying the citation, regardless of who was driving. In Maryland, the owner can assign fault to another driver and be heard in court, where a judge will determine who is responsible and court fees will be assessed. Virginia drivers can fill out an affidavit, and the ticket will be dismissed.
3 Prince George's County does not charge a late fee but instead flags the ticket holder's registration for nonrenewal until the fine is paid. The Maryland Motor Vehicle Association then assesses a fee of $30 to release the flag from the registration.
3 Charles County charges a $20 fee after the 76th day of issuance.
3 In Virginia, if a camera catches a driver running a red light, the fine is $50, and there are no additional penalties. If an officer issues the ticket, the fine is $100, plus court costs. The driver's insurance company is also notified.
3 In all jurisdictions, the tickets from red-light cameras are civil citations and not moving violations. Tickets are not reported to an insurance company and carry no points. Fines do not rise according to the number of infractions.
- Compiled by Megan Buerger