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Researchers, police split over red light cameras

Red light cameras have caused controversy in Columbus since they first arrived at some city intersections two years ago. Many drivers say the cameras are intrusive and unnecessary. Police insist they cut down on red-light running and accidents at problematic intersections. Researchers at the University of South Florida recently finished a study they say contradicts many police claims.

Traffic around Columbus can be well, trying sometimes. State route 315, and interstates 70, 71 and 670 all funnel into downtown. They all also clog with cars during the morning rush into the city and the afternoon rush out.

Right now it's the tail end of the morning rush, cars zip down 4th Street, many well in excess of the 35 mile per hour speed limit.

At the intersection of 4th and Long Street, an amber traffic light turns red. After a few seconds it goes back to green, and traffic starts to clear. A few more seconds and it goes back to amber. This is when at least one driver becomes a criminal. The driver of a white SUV sees the light changing and stomps on the gas pedal. The light turns red just before reaching the intersection, but they barrel through undeterred. A little over two years ago there probably wouldn't been any repercussions sin

Now they're caught on tape.

The SUV triggered one of the city's 18 red light cameras. Three different pictures are snapped almost instantly while another camera records a short video.

Last year this happened more than 24,000 times around the city, resulting in the collection of about one and a half million dollars. Nola Contrell is one of the drivers cited last year. She drives through downtown every day on her way to work, and was ticketed for running the light at the intersection of Third and Fulton.

"It's stupid," Cottrell says. "If the police want to catch people doing stuff like this, they should be there. They don't know what the incident was. They don't know why you ran that red light."

Not true, says Lieutenant Edward Devennish. He runs CPD's traffic division and played a key role in bringing the cameras to Columbus. He says 362 people challenged their tickets last year, even though only 31 succeeded. He says the best way to avoid a ticket is to not run red lights at all.

"Now I think what they teach in driver's training is red light means stop, green means go, and amber light means go a whole faster so you can get into the intersection before it turns red. And that type of driving is what fuels a lot of the right-angle crashes."

Those right-angle crashes, Devennish says, have been greatly reduced because of cameras. Police statistics show a sharp drop in accidents at many intersections almost immediately after cameras were installed.

"A lot of the evidence in favor of red-light cameras is anecdotal."

Etienne Pracht is a professor of economics at the University of South Florida. He's coauthored the report on red-light cameras, which is actually a critical review of several existing studies. Pracht says the majority of studies show the cameras don't work, and are an easy and cheap way for divisions to collect fines.

"There's special interest behind this to begin with. These cameras are run by private companies that get not only a monthly fee, but a percentage of each ticket."

In Columbus' case, 75 percent of each fine goes to the private company. The cameras are owned and operated by the Arizona-based RedFlex Corporation. They made about one and a half million dollars off Columbus-issued citations last year, the city received just under $400,000 of that.

Researchers also have concern that the cameras increase rear end collisions because many drivers stop suddenly because they know there's a camera at an intersection. Last year several Columbus intersections with cameras saw an increase in rear end collisions.

Another important factor in all of this, Pracht says, is insurance companies. Most insurance companies tie premiums to geographic location. If you live in an area where citations go up, chances are your car insurance premiums will also go up.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has been one of the most vocal supporters of red light cameras around the country. Spokesman Russ Rader says true, an increase in citations can mean higher premiums. But he says in most cities, Columbus included, tickets issued by cameras are civil in nature and do not assess points to a drivers license.

While the two sides disagree and may always, one things remains clear: red light cameras are here to stay. The Ohio Supreme Court earlier this year vote unanimously that red light cameras are an appropriate extention of police power and do not overstep privacy laws.