First of two parts
They're tall, sleek yet boxy, and can trigger a debate as quickly as they can flash a photo.
Red-light and speed-detection cameras have popped up in more than 100 communities across the country, including the cities of Toledo and Northwood.
Proponents say the devices reduce accidents at busy intersections, especially those caused by red-light runners that kill 900 people a year and injure nearly 200,000 others. Opponents say the cameras invade privacy and municipalities have them just to make money.
So who's right? You be the judge.
Toledo has seen an 8.5 percent decrease in the average number of accidents between the three-year period before and the three years after red-light cameras were installed at 10 intersections in the city in 2001, according to police records. Six of the intersections had fewer accidents while the other four had more.
"Before we had the cameras people saw what they thought was a total disregard for traffic signals," Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre said. "Now, people are taking notice because they don't want to see that [camera] fine. It's a proven tool to help with enforcement."
There have been just two fatal accidents since cameras were installed at 10 intersections in 2001 and later added at five other intersections. By comparison, Toledo had 15 fatal crashes from 1992-98 and was ranked 20th in the nation for fatal red-light crashes by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The number of injury accidents at the original 10 camera intersections dropped from 134 in 2000 to an average of 127 in the three years after the devices were installed. The number of injuries dropped from 244 in 2000 to 190 last year.
The intersection of Front and Main streets in East Toledo had the biggest decrease in accidents at 46 percent. The largest increase, 10 percent, occurred at Monroe Street and Secor Road.
The citywide trend has been a decrease in the number of overall accidents from 15,751 in 2001 to 13,179 last year. The number of injury accidents, meanwhile, has fluctuated.
Northwood, the only other community in northwest Ohio or southeast Michigan with traffic cameras, installed them at two locations earlier this year: Woodville and Lemoyne roads and Wales and Oregon roads. Tickets started going out in mid-February.
All of the accidents since cameras were installed at Woodville and Lemoyne have thus far involved motorists who failed to allow an assured clear distance, which often results in rear-end collisions. Police Chief Jerry Herman said it's too early to tell if that is a trend resulting from the presence of the cameras.
Some studies of traffic cameras in other cities around the country have indicated an increase in rear-end accidents and a decrease in side-impact crashes after cameras were installed. The studies suggest that motorists who are more conscious of the red-light cameras are now suddenly stopping more often to avoid a ticket, then getting hit from behind.
There have been no traffic fatalities in Northwood since 2000. Chief Herman said the number of overall accidents and injuries in the city for the first five months of this year is down compared to the same period the previous two years.
Toledo and Northwood police said many factors affect accidents: weather, construction zones, traffic volume, and inattentive drivers. But they insist the devices help reduce accidents, save lives, and change driver behavior.
Chief Herman said violations and citations have decreased at Northwood camera sites since their installation. Citations have increased during the years in Toledo, but Lt. Kevin Keel said that could be a result of five more intersections getting cameras, speed detection being added to some cameras, and a speed-detection van being put to use.
Toledo Police officer Ed Petersen studies images of cars and their license plates caught on camera committing traffic violations at Monroe Street and Secor Road.
Simmons / Blade Enlarge
Eric Skrum, spokesman for the National Motorists Association, said traffic cameras have little or no impact on safety and are really just moneymakers for the communities.
"If it's such a great safety tool and it's saving lives, why isn't the city paying for it?" he asked, referring to for-profit companies such as Redflex, which installed the cameras in Toledo and Northwood.
Lieutenant Keel countered that if Toledo was looking at making money, "We'd put them on every intersection." Nonetheless, he said a study is being done to determine whether Toledo should install more cameras.
Since 2001, Toledo mailed 53,215 citations for offenses and received $597,850 from 23 cameras situated at 15 intersections and the speed-detection van.
The city has added traffic cameras at five intersections since 2001: Alexis and Jackman roads; Anthony Wayne Trail and Western Avenue; Sylvania Avenue and Talmadge Road; Douglas and Laskey roads, and Douglas Road and University Hills Boulevard. The last two were added this year, so there was insufficient data to analyze their full effect.
Toledo police issued 13,226 camera tickets last year for running red lights alone - an average of 1.5 citations an hour or 36 daily.
Northwood has netted $68,419 from violations captured by four cameras at two intersections and its speed van since mid-February, most for speeding. Camera and speed-van revenue go into both cities' general funds.
"This guise of revenue is absolutely ridiculous," Chief Herman said of criticism from the Motorists Association and some ticketed motorists. "There would be no revenue to generate if people were obeying the law."
The traffic enforcement camera at Wales and Oregon roads in Northwood is activated and ready to capture an image as soon as a vehicle violates the speed limit or runs a red light.
Authorities are keeping an eye on the Ohio General Assembly and how a House bill passed last month may affect their programs. The bill would require officers to be at each camera location to witness the violation and issue the citation.
The measure is pending before the Senate, but lawmakers are expected to recess for the summer before that chamber can act on the measure.
Chief Herman called the House's passage of the bill "mind-boggling." He and Toledo police officials said cameras are more efficient and a more effective method of traffic enforcement.
Chief Navarre, who defended the cameras in testimony before a House committee, said he doesn't have the resources to put an officer at every camera location. He's concerned about an increase in red-light running and serious accidents if the Senate passes the bill.
"Laws without enforcement are merely suggestions," he said.
Chief Navarre said lawmakers could assuage concerns about use of the cameras as money makers by placing limitations on the number of cameras based on a community's population or square miles and by mandating how ticket revenue could be used.
Toledo and Northwood city councils have passed resolutions urging the Senate to oppose the bill. The Toledo resolution accuses the state of unconstitutionally infringing on the city's home-rule authority.
Toledo and Northwood both contracted with a for-profit company, Redflex, which bears the cost of installing and maintaining the cameras and film. Police in each city review all citations and the film before tickets are mailed.
The cameras take pictures of the back of a vehicle and the license plate as the vehicle runs a red light. If the speed function is activated on the camera, the vehicle's speed also is calculated as it passes through the intersection.
In Northwood, there are signs at all of the camera intersection approaches warning of the devices, even though pictures are not snapped in every direction. In Toledo, such signs are only on the approaches where the cameras are placed.
Authorities have a speed threshold, but they declined to disclose what it is. A nationwide study recently showed that many law enforcement agencies allow a 10 mph cushion on speeding.
"We're using discretion. We're not out there to nickel and dime people," Chief Herman said.
Citations, which contain the camera pictures, are mailed to the vehicle's registered owner. If someone is recorded running a red light and speeding, the owner will be cited for one offense in Toledo but for both violations in Northwood.
The civil violations can be appealed at a hearing in a noncourtroom setting. If the defendant pays the fine, either outright or after losing an appeal, the information is not sent to the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles or the motorist's insurance company.
Northwood's red-light camera and the baseline speed camera fine is $90. The speed fine can be higher depending on how fast the vehicle is traveling. Toledo's tickets are $95. The cities keep 25 percent of each fixed camera fine. The other 75 percent is kept by Redflex, which also receives about $30 from each speed-van ticket.
Toledo initially only received 10 percent of each ticket when its program began. As the number of tickets rose, so did the percentage the city kept. Toledo cannot collect more than 55 percent of the fines, Lieutenant Keel said.
The names of those who don't pay their fines are sent to collection agencies. Authorities said they incur some expenses, such as paying hearing officers to hear appeals weekly in Northwood and at least monthly in Toledo. Both police departments have officers or supervisors who spend one to four hours a day reviewing citations and then later attend appeal hearings.
Northwood had to set up voice mail for the influx of calls it received about the citations. It also installed fiber-optic cable to more quickly pull up video on the computer that shows the violations.
Both cities incur a cost for the speed van, which Redflex takes out of their revenue before sending them checks. Northwood pays two civilians to sit in the van when it's in use throughout the city. Toledo uses its van, manned by an officer, in school zones.
Camera vendors also incur "a lot of work" to process the violations, especially if film technology is used, said Chris Galm, spokesman for the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running, which is supported by the camera manufacturers.
"It's not an inexpensive proposition for these companies to do this," Mr. Galm said, noting that some vendors have changed their contracts so they collect flat fees instead of a percentage based on the citations issued.
Mr. Skrum of the Motorists Association said changes other than cameras that could reduce accidents at intersections - such as engineering solutions, longer yellow lights and larger traffic signals - are being ignored.
Barb Jones, signal engineer for Toledo's transportation division, said changes have been made to help traffic flow at some intersections, but she said most signals have foot-wide lenses and added that the city has not shortened the length of yellow lights at camera intersections from the average four seconds.
Russ Rader, a spokesman from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said cameras don't make money and in many cases are "break-even points at best."
Alexandria and some other Virginia cities and counties have even lost money, according to a state report.
Even advocates, such as Mr. Galm, acknowledge cameras won't work at every spot.
"If [municipalities] want to make money with this, this is probably not the right perspective," he said. "They can [make] money; they don't always."
Contact Christina Hall email@example.com 419-724-6007.