Nov 8, 2011

by Todd Shepherd

Denver's red light cameras are coming under increased scrutiny after two news reports have raised questions about the veracity and fairness of the system.

CompleteColorado.com purchased a full day's worth of tickets produced from the red light camera at 36th and Quebec, and found that of the 51 tickets issued, 48 were written to vehicles in the right lane. Many, if not most, were turning or preparing to turn right on red.

This finding lends statistical strength to the original report by Fox 31's Heidi Hemmat showing anectdotal instances of vehicles being ticketed when turning right on red.

A 1994 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted that data was lacking on RTOR (Right Turn on Red). But with the data that was available, the study still concluded, "there are a relatively small number of deaths and injuries each year caused by RTOR crashes. These represent a very small percentage of all crashes, deaths and injuries. Because the number of crashes due to RTOR is small, the impact on traffic safety, therefore, has also been small."

Not long after Hemmat's report, CBS 4's Rick Sallinger produced a report showing Denver's red light cameras were ticketing drivers who stopped at red lights, but might have edged over the white "stop" line painted on the street. (Video of this report embedded at the end of this story.)

Below are the 51 tickets obtained by CompleteColorado.com. Markings in red on the tickets are editorial remarks by this website.
36th Quebec Red Light Cam

Daelene Mix, with the Denver Manager of Safety's office, says "borderline" cases are dismissed. "DPD reviewers regularly dismiss captured incidents where it is unclear if the vehicle's wheel is actually on the stop line or over the stop line. The thought process is that if the violation is so close that is has a chance to be dismissed in court, it's better to choose non-issuance."

CompleteColorado.com showed the tickets to Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz, also featured in the CBS 4 report by Sallinger.

"It disturbs me that a significant number of the tickets appear to be related to right-on-red turns, where no one's safety is in question," Faatz said. "I have always believed photo red light tickets shouldn't be issued if an on-site officer, exercising his lawful discretion, wouldn't have written a ticket. Citations like this cause citizens to question whether government programs have any correlation with common sense."

Mix provided statistics showing that of the universe of incidents captured on cameras in Denver, roughly 60% or more are thrown out. That means just because a driver sees the camera flash, it doesn't necessarily mean a ticket was issued.

"The system is set up to detect incidents that may be a violation; however, we do not rely solely on the equipment to issue the violation," Mix said in an email. "The system is simply a means of capturing incidents for further review. It is ultimately up to DPD personnel to review all incidents that are captured and determine if it truly is a violation. Just because the camera flashes does not mean a violation will be issued. In fact, [our statistics show] that 62% of the incidents captured by the program did not result in a violation being issued. This is a strong indicator of the thoroughness and fairness of the review process, and why we do not rely solely on the equipment."

Another recent local report by KUSA's Anastaysia Bolton also indicated that red light tickets issued by Aurora PD have to go through a "two person" verification process.

When asked if rolling rights on red posed a public safety risk or hazard, Mix answered, "A 1994 study by the National Highway Safety Administration concluded that 22% of all right turn on red crashes (in the four states that were included in the study) involved a pedestrian or bicyclist. Additionally, the study determined 93% of right turn on red pedestrian or bicyclist accidents resulted in injury. Traffic volumes have only increased since them, and some areas have also seen increased speed volumes. Denver is a multi-modal city and pedestrians and bicyclists have a legitimate right to operate safely within our transportation system."

While this is true, the same study cited by Mix notes, "RTOR (right turn on red) crashes represent a very small proportion of signalized intersection crashes (0.4 percent)." And the study goes on to note, "...less than one percent (0.2 percent) of all fatal pedestrian and bicyclist crashes result from a RTOR vehicle maneuver."

Recently, the city of Los Angeles completely disbanded its red light camera operations after "right on red" turns became more of an issue.

According to Jay Beeber, who conducted the California investigation, "The rolling right turn accounts for 75 percent of the tickets and the citations issued. We looked at the California Highway Patrol's database, and looked at Los Angeles specifically, and we found that it's extremely rare for an accident to occur from a rolling right turn. So 75 percent of this multimillion-dollar program is going to try to change a behavior that doesn't actually cause accidents."

The question for the 36th and Quebec light then essentially becomes, even if the citizen violates a driving rule to the letter (i.e. not coming to a full stop), is a rolling right on red a true safety hazard? No database we could find kept the appropriate statistics to arrive at any type of conclusions similar to what was examined in the Los Angeles research. But as Faatz mentioned above, would "an on-site officer, exercising his lawful discretion," write tickets for many of the instances we see in the above citations? Is there any other intersection in the metro area where the danger of a rolling red light is so pronounced that anywhere from 30-40 tickets are written on a daily basis by on-site officers?

In 2010, Deputy Safety Manager Mel Thompson was quoted by the Denver Post saying, "We believe it saves lives and actually multiplies our force." Does Mr. Thompson believe ticketing rolling right red turns saves lives? If so, the Department should provide the warrant, and should have been more clear when instituting the cameras that they weren't just about running a red light in "perpendicular" fashion.

Closer to home, the city of Colorado Springs also disbanded their red light camera operations. According to this report by KOAA-TV, Interim Police Chief Pete Carey said, "A review of the data up to this point does not clearly show if there is an impact on dangerous front-to-side collisions or rear-end collisions at those intersections. We believe citizens will be better served if we reassign personnel to other priority functions." We could not find any report where Chief Carey mentioned the potential safety hazard, or lack thereof, of a rolling right on red.

Below is Beeber's interview with Reason magazine discussing his Los Angeles research.

Rick Sallinger's report on CBS 4 Denver.