Northeast Times

Eye in the Sky

— Red-light cam­er­as re­duce ac­ci­dents, but ques­tions have aris­en about how in­ter­sec­tions are picked.

Traffic-light cam­er­as in­stalled on the Bustleton Ave. and By­berry Rd. in­ter­sec­tion, Monday, Au­gust 8, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

For an in­stant, you might think you’re re­liv­ing a scene from Sat­urday Night Fever when you see the flash­ing white lights cre­at­ing a strobe ef­fect in your rear­view mir­ror.

But then you re­mem­ber that you’re not on the dance floor and there’s no shiny disco ball over­head. Rather, you’re in the middle of a traffic in­ter­sec­tion and may have just earned a $100 fine for blatantly dis­reg­ard­ing a red sig­nal — or per­haps mis­tim­ing the dur­a­tion of a yel­low.

As for the strobe, that’s the flash from an auto­mated red-light cam­era tak­ing pho­tos of your li­cense plate.

Phil­adelphia’s red-light cam­era pro­gram has been a source of con­tro­versy since the Phil­adelphia Park­ing Au­thor­ity, which ad­min­is­ters the cam­er­as, first in­stalled them at three North­east in­ter­sec­tions in 2005.

Since then, 21 more in­ter­sec­tions have been ad­ded to the pro­gram, bring­ing the city­wide total to 24, in­clud­ing 11 in the North­east. A 25th in­ter­sec­tion, also in the North­east, will be ad­ded by year’s end. And just last month, Gov. Tom Corbett signed le­gis­la­tion that ex­ten­ded state ap­prov­al for the cam­er­as for five years, through Ju­ly 15, 2017.

A PLUS OR A MINUS?

Much of the de­bate over the cam­er­as has fo­cused on their abil­ity to achieve the stated goal of im­prov­ing road­way safety. Avail­able data seems to show that they have made Phil­adelphia roads safer, with an ag­greg­ate re­duc­tion in vehicle ac­ci­dents of more than 20 per­cent at these in­ter­sec­tions. 

On the oth­er hand, skep­tics dis­miss the pro­gram as an un­der­han­ded gov­ern­ment rev­en­ue-gen­er­at­ing mech­an­ism.

In fact, the PPA col­lec­ted and re­dis­trib­uted more than $13.7 mil­lion in vi­ol­a­tion rev­en­ue in fisc­al year 2011. Of that total, about $6 mil­lion covered the pro­gram’s op­er­at­ing ex­penses, while PPA re­turned the rest to the Pennsylvania De­part­ment of Trans­port­a­tion for use on high­way safety pro­jects throughout the state.

Yet, with the pro­gram’s re­cent ex­ten­sion and ex­pan­sion in Phil­adelphia, some mo­tor­ists and even a state law­maker here are rais­ing new ques­tions about how and why in­ter­sec­tions are chosen for the cam­er­as. Even those in­volved in the pro­cess and those who have re­viewed it in­de­pend­ently con­cede that pub­lic in­put and trans­par­ency need to be im­proved.

“No one ever came in­to my of­fice in four years think­ing it’s a good idea to put red-light cam­er­as at Bustleton (Av­en­ue) and By­berry (Road),” said state Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-170th dist.), who has a dis­trict of­fice at 14230 Bustleton Ave., about five blocks north of the of­ten jammed-up By­berry Road in­ter­sec­tion.

Boyle learned of the new cam­er­as there only after driv­ing through the in­ter­sec­tion one day. 

Now, the law­maker says, he’s start­ing to get sev­er­al com­plaints from con­stitu­ents about those cam­er­as and oth­ers that have been in­stalled but re­main in test­ing mode at two oth­er North­east in­ter­sec­tions.

SAY­ING GRACE

In ad­di­tion to Bustleton and By­berry, new cam­er­as are in place at Wood­haven and Knights roads along with Grant Av­en­ue and Academy Road. PPA of­fi­cials ex­pect those cam­er­as to be­come fully op­er­a­tion­al this month. There will then be a “grace peri­od” of 45 days when al­leged red-light run­ners will be is­sued only warn­ings.

After that, $100 tick­ets will be is­sued to vi­ol­at­ors, who may choose to pay the fines or ap­peal the tick­ets. (Red-light cam­era vi­ol­a­tions do not res­ult in points on a mo­tor­ist’s li­cense or high­er auto in­sur­ance premi­ums.)

New cam­er­as will soon be in­stalled at the in­ter­sec­tion of By­berry and Wor­thing­ton roads, too.

Un­der state law, red-light cam­era loc­a­tions must be “agreed upon” by the PPA as well as the state’s sec­ret­ary of trans­port­a­tion. Sites also must be ap­proved by pas­sage of a city or­din­ance.

However, for prac­tic­al pur­poses, no single en­tity is re­spons­ible for ini­ti­at­ing con­sid­er­a­tion of a site.

“We [at PPA] look at some in­ter­sec­tions. Coun­cil mem­bers have asked us to look at some in­ter­sec­tions. [And] cit­izens have asked us” to look at some, said PPA Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Vince Fen­erty.

THE DE­CISION MAKERS

Re­com­mend­a­tions are based on the per­cep­tions that cer­tain in­ter­sec­tions are par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous or have a lot of red-light vi­ol­a­tions.

For ex­ample, City Coun­cil­man Bri­an O’Neill said he pro­posed a study of the By­berry and Wor­thing­ton site last year after two wo­men, ages 21 and 22, died in a fatal crash there. The in­ter­sec­tion is highly traveled and is near a sharp bend in By­berry Road, O’Neill said.

However, a red-light vi­ol­a­tion was not iden­ti­fied as a factor in the one-vehicle crash. Rather, the driver was in­tox­ic­ated when she lost con­trol of her vehicle and struck a pole, killing her two pas­sen­gers. The driver sur­vived and is serving a state pris­on sen­tence of six to 12 years.

Non­ethe­less, O’Neill (R-10th dist.) con­sul­ted with nearby res­id­ents, who gen­er­ally sup­por­ted the idea of red-light cam­er­as there, he said. Fen­erty, who lives in the Far North­east, joined in the un­scientif­ic sur­vey.

“We spoke to res­id­ents last fall,” he said. “We knocked on doors. I did it my­self.”

The sup­port was “over­whelm­ing” for the cam­er­as, Fen­erty said.

From there, it be­came the PPA’s and PennDOT’s job to de­term­ine if cam­er­as were vi­able and war­ran­ted at the site. Again, there was no stated for­mula.

PPA’s red-light cam­era vendor, Mul­vhill/Amer­ic­an Traffic Solu­tions of Scott­s­dale, Ar­iz., con­duc­ted a “mech­an­ic­al study” of the Wor­thing­ton Road site, as it has at oth­er pro­spect­ive cam­era loc­a­tions. Us­ing auto­mated equip­ment, the vendor counts how many red light vi­ol­a­tions oc­cur in a spe­cif­ic time peri­od, al­though in­di­vidu­al vi­ol­at­ors are not tracked or tick­eted, Fen­erty said.

This pro­cess is in­de­pend­ent of sub­sequent cam­era in­stall­a­tion and test­ing. Cam­er­as will not be in­stalled if the rate of vi­ol­a­tions is deemed too low, Fen­erty said. But there is no ab­so­lute threshold.

“If there are six vi­ol­a­tions in a day, it doesn’t qual­i­fy. It doesn’t have the po­ten­tial for ac­ci­dents,” the PPA dir­ect­or said. “At some in­ter­sec­tions, there have been hun­dreds.”

NOT ALL CORNERS QUAL­I­FY

At one point, PPA and its con­tract­or did a study at Knights Road and Frank­ford Av­en­ue that did not yield a high num­ber of red light vi­ol­a­tions, so cam­er­as were not in­stalled there.

Mean­while, of­fi­cials also in­spect the in­ter­sec­tion to see if it has ad­apt­able traffic sig­nals, if it is free of low-hanging power lines and if there are sites where cam­era poles can be in­stalled. Some­times, curb cuts and oth­er obstacles don’t al­low for a prop­er cam­era con­fig­ur­a­tion.

Knights Road and Frank­ford Av­en­ue is one of many in­ter­sec­tions where cam­er­as were pro­posed but did not ma­ter­i­al­ize.

When Pennsylvania’s red-light cam­era law first took ef­fect in 2005, the en­abling le­gis­la­tion lis­ted nine Phil­adelphia in­ter­sec­tions for con­sid­er­a­tion as cam­era sites.

Cam­er­as were in­stalled at three of those in­ter­sec­tions that year, fol­lowed by a fourth loc­a­tion in Janu­ary 2011. Five sites re­com­men­ded in the ori­gin­al state le­gis­la­tion still do not have red-light cam­er­as.

A re­port last year is­sued by the Pennsylvania State Trans­port­a­tion Ad­vis­ory Com­mit­tee, while cred­it­ing the pro­gram for re­du­cing red-light vi­ol­a­tions and crash fre­quency, found that, “A po­ten­tial neg­at­ive with the cur­rent law is that it neither defines any in­ter­sec­tion cri­ter­ia nor re­quires an en­gin­eer­ing study to be per­formed.

“Hav­ing this in place would con­firm that there are no ex­ist­ing prob­lems with the ex­ist­ing traffic sig­nals, etc., at pro­posed [red-light cam­era] in­ter­sec­tions. This would also im­prove ac­count­ab­il­ity, as se­lec­tion cri­ter­ia would en­sure con­sist­ency and trans­par­ency with the pub­lic.”

Boyle’s main prob­lem with the in­ter­sec­tions re­cently chosen is that they bear little re­semb­lance to the sites along Roosevelt Boulevard for which the pro­gram was ori­gin­ally in­ten­ded. The Boulevard is a 12-lane U.S. high­way sur­roun­ded by dense com­mer­cial and res­id­en­tial de­vel­op­ment.

In­ter­sec­tions like Bustleton and By­berry or By­berry and Wor­thing­ton are nar­row­er two-lane or four-lane roads. At peak hours, traffic jams — not high speeds — are the norm.

“Be­fore mov­ing for­ward, I would like to see some evid­ence that they’re needed there,” Boyle said. “We have to make sure that the de­cisions where they’re be­ing placed do re­late to safety.” ••

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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