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Archive for Sunday, June 28, 1998

RED-LIGHT RUNNERS MAY GET SURPRISE CITATION IN MAIL

June 28, 1998

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City officials are looking into the possibility of buying cameras to keep an eye on drivers who run red lights.

Tired of watching scofflaw drivers running red lights across town, Lawrence city commissioners are thinking about catching people in the act -- and on film.

Commissioners Erv Hodges and John Nalbandian are willing to consider buying ``red light cameras,'' which would be mounted on traffic signals in town and used to gather evidence that would stand up in court.

The cameras would shoot pictures of vehicles as they enter the intersection, then after they're across the stop bar with the red light on.

Busted. No doubt about it.

``I've just noticed that in Lawrence there appears to be a large group of people who fail to stop. They figure they can get through it,'' said Hodges, who complained about so-called ``red runners'' during a study session last week. ``I think it's a safety problem. I really do. I think it's becoming a dangerous habit and it's time to stop it.''

City staffers are studying the possibilities for such a program, including its cost, effectiveness and even whether it would be legal in Kansas. While such programs are in effect worldwide, none are in Kansas, said David Corliss, the city's director of legal services.

But Adam Tuton, vice president of American Traffic Systems Inc., said legal concerns typically were only a formality. His company pioneered such computer-and-camera technology in the mid-1980s, and today boasts systems in more than 200 cities in 75 countries, including more than a dozen systems in the United States.

Photographic evidence

The success of his company's system is irrefutable, Tuton said, through increased public awareness and compliance.

In Scottsdale, Ariz., the community reduced its collision losses by $5 million in its first year of operation, he said. In Fort Collins, Colo., collisions and injury accidents dropped since the cameras started shooting photos.

In all cases, officials collect the photos, review the images, check information databases and run quality-control checks before sending out citations.

And when it comes time to pay up, the violator must face the evidence: a snapshot or two detailing the time, date, location, lane and signal phase during the violation. The camera catches vehicles coming and going, and can photograph both the driver and the vehicle's license plate.

``It's just like a parking ticket, only more expensive,'' said Tuton, from his office in Scottsdale.

Nalbandian, the senior member of Lawrence's commission, has watched as city surveys have rated ``traffic flow on major streets'' as the least favorable basic city service.

Even if results do not include concerns about drivers running red lights, there's plenty of evidence to show that traffic safety is a concern. Just look at projects to improve safety at major intersections in town, such as 23rd and Massachusetts.

``I think updating traffic signals is a terribly important thing to do,'' Nalbandian said, particularly in terms of safety. Buying cameras could be a logical extension, he said.

The city is awaiting delivery of a new $14,120 portable radar unit, to be placed at various traffic areas in town to show drivers their speeds as they pass by. The system is intended for educational use, and could be followed up with police enforcement, officials have said.

$50,000 per unit

American Traffic Systems charges about $50,000 for each camera, and also offers administrative services related to such systems, Tuton said.

The price is worth it, he said, considering the alternative.

``It's like having a policeman standing at an intersection 24 hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year,'' Tuton said. ``They don't get hungry, they don't get tired. And you can deploy your police resources where they're more effective ... for fighting gangs, drugs. Let them get back in the neighborhoods.''

Concerns about privacy and a ``Big Brother'' atmosphere on Lawrence streets should be immaterial, Tuton said.

``People just don't like to get caught doing anything wrong,'' Tuton said. ``The cameras never see anyone not breaking the law.''

Hodges said he expected to discuss the camera issue during the commission's next budget study session, scheduled for 9 a.m. July 8 at city hall, Sixth and Massachusetts.

He thinks Lawrence is ready for the green light on a photographic red-light crackdown.

``This is like silent police,'' Hodges said. ``What are the speed bumps called? Sleeping police? This is the same thing. It accomplishes traffic enforcement without hiring more police.''

-- Mark Fagan's phone message number is 832-7188. His e-mail address is mfagan@ljworld.com.

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