Thousands of Seattleites have received one of the letters -- the ones from the city that shows their vehicle going through a red light and a close up of the license plate.
Since June 2006, more than 66,000 red-light camera tickets have been issued in Seattle. Many people have paid the $124 fine.
The map below shows the number of tickets issued at each location between July 26, 2006 - the first day a red-light camera ticket was issued in Seattle - and May 27, 2009. That includes about 57,000 tickets, according to city data.
"We report the dollars and cents but that's not what its about," said Michael Quinn, the civilian advisor who manages Seattle's red-light camera program. "If we can't show the safety effects, we shouldn't be doing this."
From July to October 2008, red-light running at the six original camera locations decreased 59.3 percent from the same period two years earlier, according to a city evaluation report. Despite that, the city wasn't ready to claim victory.
"With only four intersections in the test and just two years of experience, it is not possible to reach definitive conclusions regarding the effects on traffic accidents," the report states.
City officials said there's little evidence cameras have cut the frequency of all auto crashes, not to mention the more dangerous angle collisions, but it does appear that cameras may have mitigated the severity of crashes.
The two-year evaluation of the fist six red-light cameras showed 27,460 tickets had been given with a pay rate exceeding 75 percent -- more than $2,075,000 in penalties.
Quinn said it's too soon to have detailed crash data for cameras that were installed last summer.
"I would say it's very hopeful at this point for both reducing red-light running and for collisions," Quinn said of those cameras.
Others are hopeful for different reasons.
Legal battle over cameras
The City of Seattle and 23 other local governments have drawn a class-action lawsuit from area residents who contend the city-assessed fees go beyond what the Legislature intended when it approved the cameras in 2005.
In addition to complaints about the reimbursement system through which cities pay the camera operators, the plaintiffs claim the cities and Pierce County are assessing excessively high fines. Under state law, cities are allowed to create fines similar to parking infractions; specifically, the fines are restricted to "the amount of the fine issued for other parking infractions within the jurisdiction."
In Seattle, suspected violators are issued $124 tickets, an amount far higher than most parking infractions but lower than the $250 ticket issued for such violations as unauthorized parking in a handicapped space. Like parking tickets, the camera-issued citations don't appear on a violator's driving record.
Speaking Monday, attorney Rob Williamson said that $124 charge exceeds what was intended by the Legislature when the law was drafted. Instead, the amount of the fines imposed is equal to that assessed when a driver is stopped by a police officer.
Williamson said he believes the cameras are succeeding in protecting public safety, but argued that they would continue to do so if smaller fines were imposed.
"I think they are working for the safety issue, and that's fine," said Williamson, whose firm, Williamson and Williams, is pursuing the suit with the Rosen Law Firm, the Bowler Law Office and Breskin, Johnson and Townsend.
Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr said he believes the city is on firm legal ground when it comes to the fine amounts. He said no formal response has been filed yet by Seattle because the city has not yet been served with the lawsuit.
System design, expansion
As a driver approaches an intersection, the camera system senses the vehicle's speed and determines whether it is likely to pass through a red light, said Josh Weiss, spokesman for camera provider American Traffic Solutions. The first photo shows the car moments before entering the intersection; a second shows the car as it passes through.
The initial photo shows whether the light was red when the car entered the intersection. Weiss said technicians reviewing the photos can then forward the documentation on to authorities, who decide whether to file a citation.
Weiss said some cameras are also equipped with video, which accused violators can review online. In some cases, Weiss said, drivers can use the video to show that they were moving through the intersection for acceptable reasons, such as to get out of the way of an emergency vehicle.
The city has been expanding its red-light camera system since the first cameras were installed in 2006. Carr said he believes they have made city streets safer, but that more data will be needed before their effectiveness is proven.
"I think it's too early to tell," Carr said. "The hoped-for impact is that people stop running red lights, and that's what's happened in other places."
Though studies conducted elsewhere in the country have been mixed, a 2005 review by the Federal Highway Administration found that the cameras significantly decreased the number of right-angle collisions while slightly increasing the number of rear-end crashes. On balance, researchers for that study found, the collisions at the intersections became less injurious.
"What we really look at is the number of angle collisions an intersection has had and corroborate that with the number of red-light runners," Quinn said of the intersection evaluation process. City officials then spend at least a day observing traffic patterns there.
Pedestrian safety was a big reason red-light cameras were installed on Capitol Hill, he said. If a follow-up report finds the cameras are not decreasing red-light running or traffic crashes, the devices could be moved to other intersections, Quinn said.
Dennis Palmer at Crown Hill Hardware, next to the southbound red-light camera at 15th Avenue Northwest and Northwest 80th Street, said every so often people come into the store with questions.
"It's mostly out-of-town people," he said. "They don't understand it's only in one direction and ask if they're going to get a ticket."
An officer from the Seattle Police Traffic Section reviews each case before a ticket is issued. But city officials say the red-light cameras have broad support.
A random telephone survey of 400 people last August showed an 85 percent approval rate, Quinn said. And city officials continue to get unsolicited recommendations for intersections to install new cameras.
"I've got a big folder of requests," Quinn said. "It's at least two or three dozen."
Original Story here.