Red Light, Say Cheese

Red Light, Say Cheese

General Assembly passes photo-monitoring legislation that would allow city to reinstall cameras at busy intersections.

When a yellow light is not enough to deter drivers from slowing down, the City of Fairfax hopes red light cameras will do the job.

Fairfax first installed the cameras nearly 10 years ago, and it was the first jurisdiction in the Commonwealth of Virginia that did so, said City Councilmember Jeff Greenfield. The city chose locations based on accident data to ensure that the cameras would be used at the more problematic intersections, he said.

“It monitored intersections in the city, and we saw numbers go down, which is what we had hoped,” said Greenfield. “People become more sensitive to running red lights [when cameras are there].”

But the state law that allowed localities to operate the photo monitoring equipment expired in 2004, and the city had to shut down its red light cameras. The 2007 General Assembly approved legislation that would allow the city, and other localities, to bring the monitoring systems back, but an amendment to the bill could limit the number of cameras the city would be allowed to install.

Legislators from some of the more rural districts in the southern and western parts of the state amended the bill to state that only one camera per every 10,000 residents would be allowed, said Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-34). Since the City of Fairfax has about 22,000 residents, just two cameras would be allowed; the city used to operate seven. Devolites Davis said she isn’t worried about getting Gov. Tim Kaine (D) to amend the bill again for Northern Virginia.

“I’ve asked them to make an exception for the Northern Virginia planning districts,” said Devolites Davis. “We shouldn’t have a problem getting that amended.”

If for some reason the one light per 10,000 residents clause remains, the city would then just rotate the two cameras around the various intersections at random, said Capt. David Mellender, commander of the technical services division of the city police department. But from a public safety standpoint, he said the city hopes to have cameras at all of the intersections that are already wired for it.

“A lot of the intersections we use them at are very large intersections,” said Mellender. “It’s very difficult for a police officer to sit and safely watch and enforce the violations there; there’s no place to sit and observe and get in and out.”

Another benefit to the city’s use of the cameras is that it takes the revenue generated from the tickets that are issued and puts that money back into public safety and red lights, said Greenfield, who pushed for approving the cameras the first time around. Other jurisdictions just put it back into a general fund, he said.

Although the city never conducted a scientific study of accidents and violations, Mellender said that overall violations were down while the cameras were operating. The city conducted a survey in March 2004 to see how residents felt about the cameras. He said about 85 percent of those surveyed were in favor — up 10 percent from a survey done before the cameras were implemented, he said. Mellender did not have the data of the survey’s sampling demographics.

But some residents did complain about the cameras being a violation of privacy, said Greenfield, which just isn’t valid these days.

“There are cameras all over with everything we do — grocery stores, department stores, the ATM — tracking more information than what a red light camera does,” he said. “If you don’t run a red light, you don’t have to worry about it.”