Until midnight on Thursday, June 30, a video or still camera could record drivers in parts of Fairfax County and Fairfax City who ran red lights. The “photo red” program ended on Friday, July 1, after a bill extending its life died in the Virginia General Assembly’s House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety back in February.
“We were the first jurisdiction in Virginia to have a photo red light program, so we have the longest track record for what the results have been,” said Col. Rick Rappoport, chief of police for the City of Fairfax Police Department. “What we saw was a significant decrease in red-light violations.”
Between June and December 2004, the Virginia Department of Transportation conducted a study at the behest of Whittington Clement, Virginia Secretary of Transportation, analyzing “photo red.” As part of the study, researchers conducted a public opinion survey for “photo red” and found that in Fairfax County, 64 percent of respondents favored the red light camera program while 46 percent opposed it. Seventy-seven percent of respondents thought the program could improve safety, and 23 percent thought it could not.
“It’s led to a significant decrease in red-light running, in T-bone accidents,” said Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites-Davis (R-34).
According to the study, red light cameras did minimize T-bone accidents, or accidents caused when a car runs a red light and collides with the side of a car crossing the intersection, but led to an increase in rear-end crashes.
According to Del. J. Chapman Petersen (D-37), who served on Militia, Police and Public Safety, the main arguments against red light cameras had to do with invasion of privacy and their alleged use as a moneymaker for local governments.
“The primary concern was that these cameras weren’t accountable, made mistakes, and that there were innocent people being punished, either by camera malfunctions or by prosecutorial overzealousness,” said Petersen.
“It’s difficult to estimate the loss of property or the amount of injury that the red light cameras helped avoid in the last 20 years," said Bob Sisson, Fairfax city manager. "So it's equally difficult to know what that will cost us in the next few years before the General Assembly’s thinking evolves.”
ACCORDING TO the study, the cameras were a $97,811 loss for Fairfax County overall, but for Fairfax City, they added $11,004 in revenue.
“(Red light cameras) were more cost effective, but they were not moneymakers,” said Rappoport. Because of the cameras, he said, Fairfax City had fewer violations per intersection, so they generated less revenue.
“The photo red light advantage is that the system works 24-7,” said Rappoport. “No police department can provide that service level in their jurisdictions.” Another advantage, said Rappoport, was that red-light cameras could be situated at intersections whose size or position make it unsafe for officers to chase down and apprehend a red-light runner accurately.
The bill extending the life of “photo red,” SB 721, was patroned by Sen. John S. Edwards (D-21) in December 2004. The Virginia Senate passed the bill 31-9 in January, but Speaker of the House William J. Howell (R-28) referred it to Militia, Police and Public Safety, where it failed.
“If (the bill) had been sent to the Transportation Committee, it would’ve passed,” said Petersen. “Let’s just say they named MPP the committee where bills came to die. It was one of those things: it came up every year I was in legislature, which was four years, and it was always just a voter too shy to pass.”
“I intend to bring legislation back to restart the program,” said Devolites-Davis. “I think it’s criminal that the legislation to extend the program was killed, because it has been so effective.”
“I think the community’s going to be less safe by virtue of the fact that we no longer have that enforcement tool,” said Rappoport. “There’s no practical alternative that will compare to that kind of safety technology.”