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Investigator: Should Cleveland ban red light cameras?

8:54 AM, Feb 19, 2013   |    comments
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CLEVELAND -- Only three of the city's 40 most dangerous intersections have cameras that ticket drivers running a red light, calling into question claims by the city that its program is designed to increase public safety, a Channel 3 News investigation found.

The station also found that four of Cleveland's five most-dangerous intersections have gotten worse since the city first installed traffic enforcement cameras in last 2005, according to an analysis of traffic data by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency.

The findings come as Mayor Frank Jackson is planning to expand the city's traffic camera program, which snaps photos of cars running red lights and speeding down straight-aways and can result in tickets for the drivers.

While such programs have been around for years, some big cities, like Los Angeles and San Diego, have shut down their cameras after finding little evidence that they improve driver awareness or curb accidents.

Meanwhile, Baltimore has appointed a task force to review its program after The Baltimore Sun newspaper uncovered numerous problems, including malfunctioning cameras and poor record keeping.

Baltimore, like Cleveland, has a contract with the photocopier company Xerox to operate its traffic-camera program.

So what are city auditors saying about Xerox's performance in Cleveland?

Not a thing.

Cleveland officials said that the auditor has never looked at the program -- not at its books, not at its performance, and not at claims that cameras increase public safety.

"I don't know how you come back to council and ask us to expand this program, which they have done, without being able to show us clear evidence that the program is working," said City Councilman Zach Reed.

Erica Creech, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, declined to have a city official sit for an interview, citing the ongoing contract proposal process. But she said the Bureau of Traffic routinely reviews the program, looking at daily maintenance and calibration of the cameras.

Channel 3 News decided to do what city auditors won't -- reviewing three years worth of records on the traffic-enforcement cameras.  

The Investigator Tom Meyer found that revenue from camera tickets is falling dramatically -- from more than $8 million a year in 2009 to just under $6 million last year. Xerox, though, is still getting paid its $3.25 million-a-year fee.

Xerox, in its annual report, cites road construction and better driving habits for the drop in tickets being issued.

But the station uncovered another possibility -- Cleveland Police are approving far fewer tickets. 

Police review potential violations identified by Xerox to make sure the driver actually broke the law. Records show that the percentage of those potential violations being approved have dropped over the last three years, from 86 percent in December 2009 to just 55 percent last December.

"That's a dramatic drop," said Reed. "We need to evaluate and there needs to be some type of oversight."

As for the claim that cameras prevent accidents and improve public safety? The city said it doesn't have any evidence to back it up. 

"If you're taking people's money for it, there should be some paper trail," said Courtney Nestor, who was recently sent a red-light camera ticket in the mail. "There should be credibility."

Instead, the station relied on data compiled by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, or NOACA, which conducts transportation studies for regional planning.

NOACA ranks the region's most dangerous intersections based on a composite score that takes into account the number, frequency and severity of crashes.   

Cleveland has 40 of the region's 100 most-dangerous intersections, according to NOACA's 2011 rankings.

Based on the intersections composite scores from 2005 to 2009, we found:

  • Only three of the city's 30 red-light cameras are located at Cleveland's most dangerous intersections, based on NOACA's 2011 rankings.
  • Two of the three intersections became safer. They are at East 116th Street and Shaker Boulevard, and East 55th Street and Carnegie Avenue.
  • The third intersection with the camera, at East 131st Street and Harvard Avenue, got more dangerous.
  • Four of the Cleveland's five most dangerous intersections got worse, and none have a camera. They are at East 55th Street and Woodland Avenue; Ontario Street and Carnegie Avenue near Progressive Field; East 30th Street and Orange Avenue; and East 105th Street and Chester Avenue.

There is some good news for drivers in all this. We found that 60 percent of those who appeal their ticket get it dismissed or get the fine reduced.

"I'm probably going to shoot myself in the foot because more people are going to do hearings," said Brian Mahon, one of the city's two hearing officers who conduct appeals, "but it's always to your benefit if you feel strongly about it and can present evidence."

The city said it will be asking the company that takes over the program, whether it is Xerox or another company, to do a traffic study of the intersections where the cameras will be located.

It will be too late for Reed. The councilman said he would not support  any plan that would add more cameras to the program until the city can provide evidence that it improves public safety.

"It's got to be about public safety," Reed said. "If we're putting them in locations just because we know we're going to catch people speeding or we know we're going to catch people running a red light, ...then you're defeating the purpose."

For a look at Cleveland's traffic cams and most dangerous intersections: wkyc.com/trafficcams

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