|FROM ||Ruben Safir
|SUBJECT ||Subject: [NYLXS - HANGOUT] who watches the wathers
MODESTO, CA?Speaking in his downtown office, Mayor Garrad Marsh told Ars
that he has lots of questions for Redflex
, one of the largest red light camera
(RLC) operators in the United States.
Years ago, when the Australian company?s cameras first came to this
Central California agricultural city of 200,000 people, Marsh was a city
council member who was generally positive on the idea of using automated
cameras to catch drivers dangerously zooming through intersections at
high speed. ?Now, I?m not sure... to almost negative,? he said.
Modesto features an active downtown area replete with shops, city
offices, taco trucks, and a transit center, but the city has expanded
significantly to the north and east. That?s where Modesto seems to be
miles after miles of flat, single-family homes, strip malls, and big box
retailers. Drivers regularly blow through red lights at intersections on
these long, straight streets.
In June 2004, Modesto?s city council noted
(PDF) that the city had 313 intersection collisions (with 170 injuries)
?directly attributable to red light running? in the previous year. The
council unanimously approved installing cameras at ?up to 10?
intersections as part of a five-year contract with Redflex. The city
believed at the time that ?the implementation of red light photo
enforcement will significantly reduce the number of red light violations
in the City of Modesto? and that the city would have ?another valuable
traffic calming tool to improve community and pedestrian safety.?
Besides safety, an added benefit of the Redflex system was its "cost
neutral" basis, meaning the city would never pay Redflex anything beyond
a percentage of the fines generated by the camera system. This is a
common approach to many red light camera contracts
designed to make the system easy for cities to approve.
Marsh voted for the resolution at the time, and he said that the goal
was never for the city to make more money?a common argument against red
light cameras. ?It's difficult for a cop to give a red light ticket
[under normal circumstances,]? Marsh told me. "The reason is that it?s,
?He said, she said.? There's no proof that I entered before it turned
red. It's just difficult. So [with the red light cameras] we might make
a little money on it, but that was not one of the decision points for
anybody. We could have greater safety and not have to utilize cops
sitting on an intersection to figure out if someone ran a red light.?
Garrad Marsh, mayor of Modesto, California, sketches intersections as he
makes a point about red light cameras.
But doubts crept in. A year after supporting the Redflex system, Marsh
wanted to see the actual camera setups. He drove out near Highway 99 at
Sisk Road in the northwest corner of town, close to the Vintage Faire
shopping mall. What he saw surprised him. The red light camera at the
intersection was "set up to only monitor the lane coming off of Highway
99 onto Sisk, going north,? Marsh said. ?That was the only monitored
lane?the turn lane is not the T-bone situation,? he said, referring to a
dangerous scenario where one high-speed car plows into another at a
?You're not blowing through a red light the way that a truly dangerous
situation would be. That looks like they've picked the one where they
can make money off of it. That was what got me thinking.?
Some of his doubts were allayed at a meeting with Redflex
representatives, who showed off footage of a driver at another Modesto
intersection who clearly made no attempt at slowing down as he blew
through a red light. ?It was clearly the type of ticket you would want
to give, the type that I voted for, that would cause a serious possibly
fatal accident?that kind of kept me at bay for a while,? Marsh said. ?It
was really a dynamic and impressive piece of film.?
But he was still troubled by the focus on turn lanes and continued to
look into the implementation details of the Redflex setup. Marsh found
that "most of the tickets [we issue from red light cameras] are
right-hand turn. It's illegal, it's dangerous, but it's not the 'fatal
accident' type of turn.?
This was a pattern. The cameras in Modesto are mounted across four
intersections, but they are only set up to capture six precise
situations. As the /Modesto Bee
noted in October 2013, the cameras watch drivers who are:
? Turning left from eastbound Standiford Avenue onto northbound Sisk
? Turning left from eastbound Briggsmore Avenue onto northbound
? Traveling north on Coffee Road through Sylvan Avenue or turning
east onto Sylvan from northbound Coffee
? Traveling north on Oakdale Road through Briggsmore or turning east
onto Briggsmore from northbound Oakdale
In short, just two out of the six deployments are even designed to
capture the most dangerous scenario worrying citizens and city officials
alike: cars blasting straight through a red light at high speed.
?We're collecting $1 million from our residents and sending most of it
to Arizona,? Marsh said, referring to Redflex?s American subsidiary
located in the Grand Canyon State. ?I'm going: are we really making our
intersections safer? If it was $1 million and it all stayed in Modesto,
I might not be so pessimistic or cynical. And if it proves to truly
produce safer intersections without having to utilize personnel to be
there that aren't out there catching bad guys or patrolling. I'm not
guaranteeing that I'll vote against it or change, but I am quite
concerned that it's not what we bought, and it doesn't do good for our
According to the Modesto Police Department
the mayor's $1 million reference describes the total amount collected in
fines across three years. Of that money, the city keeps only ten percent
(in this case, $110,000)?the rest goes to Redflex and to pay the
part-time salary of one Modesto police officer who helps manage the system.
Rajiv Shah, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who
studied red light
cameras in Chicago in 2010, said that Marsh's observations are spot-on.
?A significant portion of the red light cameras?maybe 70 or 80
percent?are for rolling right turns,? Shah told Ars. ?When you think of
RLC, they're for people blowing through the intersection, which don't
have nearly the same kind of chance for accident or injury. A lot of
people feel like it's really unfair, doing the things like the right turns.
?There?s nothing wrong with using technology to improve traffic safety.
What's wrong with RLC is that the emphasis became on revenue instead of
traffic safety early on, and that led to decisions on business models
and locations and how they set up fines, warnings, education. That left
a bad taste in people's mouths,? he added.
Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh points out the locations of RLCs on a map of