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.
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.” ••