City of Fairfax Police Chief Rick Rappaport is a big believer in red-light cameras. Last week, Rappaport proposed increasing the number of camera intersections in Fairfax City from three to 10, a move made possible by a recent state law that no longer requires municipalities to get the Virginia Department of Transportation’s blessing for traffic cameras.
Not surprisingly, Rappaport’s push to put seven more cameras up isn’t sitting well with everyone, including Fairfax City Councilman Steven Strombres.
“I must confess I have never been totally comfortable with this program,” Strombres said. “In terms of the revenue, we have all probably told people in the community that this is not a revenue issue, even though it has generated more than $300,000 in profit.”
That’s the key sticking point for Fairfax City and other municipalities across the country. Are these cameras making our communities safer or are they simply making up for revenue streams that have dried up in recent years?
Rappaport says his proposal is all about making roads safer in Fairfax City. That’s good to hear, but more than a few critics say red-light cameras, which are usually operated by private companies, are growing in popularity not because they make streets safer, but because they make a lot of money for cities and companies.
New York City introduced the first red light camera ticketing system in 1993. Twenty years and countless studies later, there are still a wide range of opinions on the safety benefits. Most studies show that red light cameras reduce broadside or “T-bone” accidents (among the worst types of collisions), while increasing the number of rear-end crashes.
That said, Rappaport is quick to point out that not a single rear-end collision in Fairfax City last year can be tied to the city’s red light camera program. Given that camera-fueled, rear-end collisions were largely responsible for the program’s demise eight years ago, Fairfax City’s 2012 numbers are encouraging. It will be even more encouraging if the number of red-light violations decline at camera intersections, as national statistics show they’re likely to do over time.
Although some may feel differently, Rappaport doesn’t need to apologize for the $335,000 Fairfax City has made since the program’s inception 18 months ago. It’s worth noting that all of the money is directed to the city’s General Fund to pay for everything from police scanners to new library books. If drivers don’t want to pay a $50 fine, they shouldn’t roll through red lights. It’s more than a little telling that less than 1 percent of Fairfax City’s 17,000 camera citations were contested.
Washington, D.C., Alexandria and Falls Church are also pleased with the results of their red light programs.
Fairfax County hasn’t been in the red light camera business since 2005. Although a red light program might not work as well for Fairfax County as it does for neighboring jurisdictions, county officials would be wise to revisit the issue and determine whether it makes more sense from a cost and safety perspective than it did eight years ago.