Lynnwood’s red-light cameras: for safety or profit?

LYNNWOOD — Three years ago, this city was the first in Snohomish County to install cameras to ticket red-light runners.

It’s still the only city in the county with them.

Proponents say the program is working. They say fewer people are complaining about red-light runners and that drivers are changing their habits.

“I wouldn’t continue it on if it wasn’t effective,” council President Ted Hikel said.

Others question whether safety or money are the main motivations for having the cameras.

City Councilman Mark Smith has asked that question several times since the city hired Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions in 2007 to install and maintain the cameras. Today, red-light cameras operate 24 hours a day at eight intersections.

One thing’s for sure: The cameras generate cash. They’ve already raised $2.2 million this year through May.

That’s more than what Lynnwood made on the cameras for all of last year.

Records show revenues from red light and school zone speeding infractions brought in about $6.3 million after expenses since cameras began operating in July 2007.

Drivers get ticketed $124 for red-light violations; speeders caught by the cameras in school zones can be ticketed for up to $250.

Smith wants the City Council to consider lowering the amount the city charges for traffic camera tickets. Next Monday, police and court officials plan to brief the City Council on the red-light program.

“What I think is that they are very, very good safety measures at some of the most dangerous intersections in the city — and that includes school zones, where we want to emphasize safety,” Smith said. “When it was implemented, none of us had any idea that it would produce this much revenue. That’s not what it’s intended to do. It’s not intended to soak some poor guy who’s just trying to get to work.”

Nationwide, the cameras have been controversial, with both sides pointing to studies backing their positions. Last month, Mukilteo’s City Council pushed forward with a plan to add red-light and school-zone cameras along the Mukilteo Speedway.

That plan irritated anti-tax crusader Tim Eyman, a Mukilteo resident who started a petition that could lead to a citywide vote on the issue. That City Council also plans to discuss the cameras at a meeting on Monday.

So just how much have the cameras improved safety at Lynnwood’s intersections?

That’s hard to tell. Police have bits and pieces of accident data but not enough to draw any specific conclusions, Police Chief Steve Jensen said.

“In the future, when we get a new records management system in 2011, we’ll be able to specifically indicate that,” he said. “You can’t convince people that this is about safety if they have the mind-set that this is about revenue.”

Police say they have noticed one change: Not as many people complain about red-light runners. The violation was one of the most commonly complained about before the cameras were installed.

“Since we’ve had this program, we haven’t had any calls,” said Sgt. Wayne Davis, who’s become Lynnwood’s unofficial manager for the program. “I don’t even know the last time we’ve had anyone complain about running red lights.”

Last September, the city added cameras to monitor vehicle speeds in school zones at Lynnwood Elementary School, at 188th Street SW and 44th Avenue W., and along 168th Ave. SW near Meadowdale High School, Meadowdale middle and elementary schools and Beverly Elementary School.

The new cameras raised the ire of many vehicle owners, who are the ones held responsible for violations whether they’re driving or not. Because of complaints, police have shortened the amount of time cameras record vehicles in front of Lynnwood Elementary School, 18638 44th Ave. W, where classes don’t begin until 9:20 a.m.

Police spokeswoman Shannon Sessions said few people complain to the city about the red light cameras.

“I think in general, people want to do the right thing and when they’re caught on video, they don’t really come and complain about it,” she said.

Most complaints, she said, have come from vehicle owners and drivers caught speeding in school zones.

“The people who get the most angry are the ones who didn’t realize it was an enforced zone,” she said.

Councilman Jim Smith calls the program “a real Frankenstein.” He said the council never received specific accident data demonstrating why speed-zone cameras were necessary.

With the city’s budget woes, it can’t do without the money it gets from the camera program, he said.

“We’re now dependent on the photo red-light and school-zone money to keep our head above water,” he said.

The city pays American Traffic solutions $54,000 a month for the video and photo equipment used to capture the back ends of red-light-running vehicles. The Arizona company, which has nationwide contracts with cities, throws out about 40 percent of the red-light videos and photos its cameras record. The 11 Lynnwood traffic officers who review the photos and videos discard another 20 percent to 25 percent, Davis said.

One place where the effect of the new program has been felt is Lynnwood Municipal Court.

Court Administrator Jill O’Cain said her employees field calls from angry vehicle owners every week. She said about half of her employees’ time on the phone is related to the red-light and school-zone cameras. She said three full-time clerks and one half-time clerk handle photo enforcement. The department could use another full-time and half-time employee, she said.

“A lot of people are frustrated that they were not stopped by an officer,” she said.

Red-light and school-zone tickets are delivered by mail. O’Cain said people charged with red-light running or speeding in school zones can ask for a mitigation hearing in person or by mail, which may reduce their fine. They also can contest the ticket and have a trial, pay the fine or file a declaration of nonresponsibility.

The court handles about 1,500 hearings a month where people seek lower fines, 1,200 of them by mail. O’Cain said the court schedules about 490 hearings a month where people seek to get the tickets dismissed.

Oscar Halpert: 425-339-3429; ohalpert@heraldnet.com

Camera tally

Here is the total revenue brought in by Lynnwood’s red-light and school-zone cameras since the city added them in 2007.

2007: $928,617.83

2008: $2,347,592.07

2009: $2,118,400.13

2010 (through May): $2,169,988.79

Have your say

Red-light and school-speed zone cameras will be the topic at meetings by the Lynnwood and Mukilteo city councils on Monday.

Police and court officials are scheduled to brief the Lynnwood City Council on their red-light program, which has been in place since 2007. The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at City Hall Council Chambers, 19100 44th Ave. W.

The same night, the Mukilteo City Council is expected to talk about its decision to add the cameras at two locations. That meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at City Hall, 11930 Cyrus Way.

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