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Too little data to judge red-light cameras, DOT says

It may take several years before officials can analyze whether the cameras improve safety, an engineer says.

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By Rikki King
Herald Writer
@rikkiking
Published:
The state Department of Transportation isn't yet endorsing the safety benefits of traffic-enforcement cameras.
Instead, a top state engineer says there simply isn't enough data.
The state takes a data-driven approach, and crash data lags by about six months, said Mark Leth, traffic engineer for the northwest region of the state, including Snohomish County.
The state has primary responsibility for traffic signals on state highways that run through cities with fewer than 25,000 people. Cities of that size need state approval to install enforcement cameras along highways.
In the region, only Monroe and Lake Forest Park have sought and received state approval. Each city posted cameras at single highway intersections. Lake Forest Park's cameras have been up about a year, Monroe's a few months.
Mukilteo was aiming to join their ranks, but that city's camera program was stopped after a Tim Eyman initiative in 2010.
The state hasn't yet turned down an enforcement-camera proposal from a city in the region, but Mukilteo might have cut it close, Leth said.
Mukilteo, a city of 20,200, was having difficulty making the case that cameras could prevent accidents on the Mukilteo Speedway, also known as Highway 525, records show.
"It never got to the point where we had to give them a formal yes or a formal no," state transportation spokeswoman Jamie Holter said.
The state operates a steadily expanding grid of traffic-monitoring cameras that are used to help warn commuters of accidents and backups. The transportation department doesn't run any red-light enforcement cameras of its own.
The use of traffic-enforcement cameras is studded with political land mines. Monroe, for example, is embroiled in a legal battle over whether the decision to use the cameras should be subject to a public vote.
In Lynnwood, the cameras rake in millions of dollars in revenue. Yet two cops there are under outside investigation for potential conflicts of interest in their dealings with a traffic-camera company. Lynnwood's population is nearly 36,000, so cameras along highways there weren't subject to state approval.
Meanwhile, records show that two major traffic-camera companies, American Traffic Solutions and Redflex Traffic Systems, both of Arizona, have offered local officials strategies for getting speedy state approval.
In Mukilteo, an American Traffic Solutions executive called the city traffic engineer an "idiot" when the engineer raised doubts in an email that red-light violation data would convince the state.
The state isn't privy to those conversations, Leth said. State engineers rarely communicate with the camera companies directly.
"The systems talk to each other, but the people don't talk to each other," Holter said.
It's not up to the state to dig into cities' claims of safety benefits, Leth said.
They have to trust that cities will "advocate for what they think is right," he said.
For now, state transportation officials are keeping track of the existing enforcement cameras and waiting for enough time to pass to analyze whether there is an impact, Leth said. It could take several years to develop criteria.
"I wouldn't say that we have concrete guidelines at this point. It's still a work in progress," he said. "We're as interested as anyone in how these can actually affect safety."
Smaller cities that want cameras on highways first must sign an agreement with the state, Leth said. They must identify potential camera locations, analyze crash data and do a 16-hour survey of violations, among other requirements.
The kinds of crashes and types of red-light violations at intersections are more important than the sheer number of red-light violations recorded by the cameras, Holter said.
The state is most concerned about red-light-related crashes where people blow straight through the light or turn left across traffic, Leth said. Crashes caused by people turning right against the light, often without coming to a full stop, aren't as big a concern.
Traffic-enforcement cameras have potential, but they need to be at the right locations, Leth said.
Mukilteo's survey showed thousands of rolling right turns, but only a handful of people blasting through the intersection on a red light.
Engineers have seen evidence in some parts of the country suggesting that cameras can prevent accidents. Other data suggests certain types of crashes can increase. State engineers know that intersections see more rear-end collisions than the open highway, and they are paying close attention to make sure serious crashes don't increase.
As time passes, engineers will learn more about how the cameras affect intersections, Leth said. They may explore other solutions to curb red-light running, such as changes to signal timing, different road signs, changes in lighting and right-turn rules.
One thing state officials say isn't on the table: shortening yellow light times to ensnare more red-light runners.
The state is careful to keep enforcement-camera equipment separate from the mechanisms it uses to operate traffic signals, Leth said.
The enforcement camera companies have no control over the traffic signal. The technology used only allows the camera system to read what color the lights were at a given instant, Leth said. The camera companies are not allowed access to state cabinets or computers at intersections.
"We have a very limited involvement with these from the state perspective," Leth said.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com
Story tags » MonroeMukilteoTransportationStatePoliticsRoadsTraffic Safety

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