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Published: Thursday, October 27, 2011, 9:42 a.m.

Cautionary report by national watchdog on enforcement cameras

One of Washington's most-effective public interest watchdog groups is raising concerns about increased government reliance on controversial traffic-enforcement cameras.

The Washington Public Interest Research Group, better known as WashPIRG, on Thursday began distributing "Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead."

The study, prepared by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, provides a national look at the questions emerging as local governments contract with private camera companies to help enforce traffic safety laws.

"Local contracting for automated traffic enforcement systems may sometimes be a useful tool for keeping drivers and pedestrians safe. But when private firms and municipalities consider revenues first, and safety second, the public interest is threatened," the study says.

The authors suggests that people closely scrutinize camera contracts for hidden costs and also to guard against potential erosion of local control over public safety decisions. It is important to have the option of increasing the duration of yellow warning lights or other engineering options for making roadways safer.

"Once contracts are signed it is very difficult for cities or towns to end them or change them without the approval of the other party," said Ryan Pierannunzi, a WashPIRG advocate.

Locally, enforcement cameras are being used by the cities of Lynnwood and Monroe -- generating lots of political heat, some litigation and loads of expensive tickets.

The devices have proven lucrative and also problematic for Lynnwood. There, millions of dollars raked in as camera ticket fines have brought sharp criticism at City Hall and a belated acknowledgement that data are unclear regarding safety impacts. The program began in 2007, and Lynnwood officials recently said they now need the ticket revenue to keep cops on the payroll.

The new report suggests communities make a priority of providing easy access to data about how cameras are being used to enforce traffic rules.

It also notes that camera companies are exercising increasing clout in state legislatures, in the courts, in elections and in other efforts to shape public opinion.

American Traffic Solutions Inc., the Arizona company that contracts with Lynnwood for red-light and school zone speed enforcement cameras, is singled out for actions locally. The authors point to emails uncovered in Mukilteo that document how a camera company executive in 2010 asked for the city's help in finding somebody local to "use" in bringing a legal challenge against a successful anti-camera initiative. The report also notes how the same camera company executive was sent packing after The Herald showed he was trying to pass himself off as a local in online debates about camera contracts.

According to the study, nearly 700 local governments nationwide either have installed red-light cameras or are considering their use. About one in five people in the U.S. now live in areas with enforcement cameras, according to the study's authors.

"Privatized traffic law enforcement should be used solely as a tool for enhancing traffic safety -- not as a cash cow for municipalities or private firms," the report said.

UPDATE: The report on red-light cameras is making headlines, including in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.

Below is the full text of the press release that WashPIRG sent out this morning. Among other things, it calls attention to data analysis recently conducted by Everett-based Gibson Traffic Consultants, Inc., raising questions about the impact red-light cameras could have on safety in Bellingham. We wrote about that here.

New Report Outlines Problems with Red-Light and Speed Cameras

First Nationwide Study Recommends Safeguards to Protect Washingtonians

A new research report released today outlines problems with the growing trend among cities to outsource traffic enforcement to red-light and speed camera vendors.

“Too many cities wrongly sign away power to ensure the safety of citizens on the roads when they privatize traffic law enforcement. Automated traffic ticketing tends to be governed by contracts that focus more on profits than safety,” said Ryan Pierannunzi of WASHPIRG, the Washington Public Interest Research Group. “That shouldn't happen,” Pierannunzi added.

The report, titled Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead; The Risks of Privatizing Traffic Law Enforcement and How to Protect the Public finds that approximately half of states have enabled the use of automated traffic law enforcement. Municipalities in these states contract with private companies to provide cameras and issue citations to traffic violators.

In Washington alone, 26 municipalities have contracts for automated traffic enforcement. Citizens have often objected to privatized forms of traffic enforcement and many municipalities have found themselves in legal trouble when they attempt to change or update these contracts. Traffic engineering alternatives, such as lengthening yellow lights, are often the best way to reduce injuries from red-light running. However, those solutions too often get ignored because contractors and sometimes municipalities are more focused on increasing revenue from tickets.

For example, Bellingham contracted with American Traffic Solutions, a camera vendor, to install and operate a traffic camera system. When citizens organized a petition drive to include the question of camera use on this November's ballot, the camera vendor sued the city to prevent the issue from coming to a vote. The lawsuit was dismissed but recently the pending referendum was deemed not legally binding, and thus will not affect the contractual relationship between the city and the vendor. In a recent study of a monitored intersection in Bellingham, the engineering firm Gibson Traffic Consultants found that “the collision data does not support the introduction of red-light cameras…it only has the potential to reduce at angle red-light running collisions by a less than 1 per year but increase rear ends by an average of nearly 5 per year for this particular intersection.”

“Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead raises critical warnings about revenue priorities overtaking safety concerns,” said Gary Biller, the executive director of the National Motorists Association. “This report is a must-read for city administrators in municipalities considering the addition of red light cameras.”

The report recommends stronger guidelines to ensure that automated traffic enforcement programs must focus on improving road safety, rather than ticket revenue. Deals between local governments and traffic camera vendors should:

* Put public safety first in decisions regarding enforcement of traffic laws – this includes evaluating privatized law enforcement camera systems against alternative options without regard to potential revenues.

* Ensure that contract language is free from potential conflicts of interest.

* Avoid direct or indirect incentives for vendors that are based on the volume of tickets or fines.

* Retain public control over traffic policy and engineering decisions, including cancelling contracts if the public is dissatisfied.

* Ensure that the process of contracting with vendors is completely open, with ample opportunity for public participation and each ticket listing where to find online data about automated ticketing for each intersection.

“Washington has already seen controversy over the use of red-light cameras. We need to learn from our mistakes here and elsewhere,” said Pierannunzi.

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