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NJ: More evidence red light cameras are about the money and not public safety

If red light cameras are really making the public safer from renegade motorists, why are the crash numbers being fudged?

In New Jersey, a study by the group Stop Robo Cops–they are against red light cameras, not the fictional RoboCop character–suggests the crash data is incomplete because it only includes two types of crashes.

shutterstock_97197530The Department of Transportation is collecting crash data from municipalities to determine whether New Jersey’s temporary red light camera program should become permanent.

The New Jersey Department of Transportation says only two types of crashes are effected by red light cameras.

“The focus is on crashes attributable to red light runners…right angle and rear end crashes,” explained Stephen Schapiro, a NJDOT spokesman, in a statement to NJ.com.

Data misleads

The co-founders of Stop Robo Cops, George Ford and Rick Short, say that makes the data misleading because other types of crashes occur at or near red lights too.

“I’d throw the whole report out and start over, the whole approach is wrong,” said Ford, a retired engineer, in an interview with NJ Advance Media.

Ford and Short examined raw crash data, looking at five additional types of crashes. These include crashes involving pedestrians and objects, plus head-on collisions and roll overs.

After looking at the data and how it is collected, they have identified problems with the crash figures. Here are a few of them:

  • The NJDOT reports rely on crash count data submitted by each participating town
  • Crash counts are inaccurate because the towns were not given clearly defined crash selection criteria
  • In the DOT report, pedestrian accidents are buried in an “Other” category

shutterstock_175305311You can find all of the report’s findings by clicking here. But to neatly sum up their findings, crashes were undercounted due to selective data gathering.

In addition, because towns self-reported the data and have a self-interest to continue getting red light camera revenue, there’s no guarantee that the numbers are accurate.

In one example of towns fudging the data, they are able to determine what length from an intersection constitutes a crash near a red light camera. Because of that, Short says towns have claimed accidents as much as a quarter-mile away from an intersection as happening at the intersection.

Watchdog Wire previously reported on crash data from red light camera intersections in Piscataway. The data was incomplete and showed inconsistent results, with reductions and increases in crashes, depending on the intersection.

Money talks

With the public safety argument for red light cameras in doubt, what’s the real motivation for towns to install red light cameras?

If you ask the public, they’ll tell you it’s about the money. A clear majority believes they are about raising money, according to a Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll.

When asked why towns install the cameras, 60 percent of respondents said the main reason is to raise money. Just 27 percent said the main reason is public safety.

shutterstock_101050888The money factor could explain why the New Jersey State League of Municipalities supports renewing the red light camera program. Bill Dressel, the league’s executive director, wrote a letter to Chris Christie last week, urging him to support continuation of the program.

“The purpose of these cameras is to enhance safety by discouraging drivers from improperly passing through red lights,” Dressel wrote. “The NJ Department of Transportation program report finds that the red light running program in fact has been effectively enhancing safety by changing driver behavior.”

Again with the public safety argument. But as we explained, the data is incomplete and inconclusive. The truth is, millions of dollars are on the line for many towns, and budgets are tight. Right now 24 towns have red light cameras, with a total of 73 camera-equipped intersections within these towns.

Towns take

But not every town is on board with generating red light ticket revenue. Earlier this year, one town decided to shut them off.

On February 17, Brick Township took a stand when the easy thing would have been to accept the money and stay quite. But Mayor John Ducey walked away from the program that yielded $800,000 in ticket revenue in 2013.

“It’s wrong to try to balance a budget on ill-gotten gains from a program that’s premised on safety,” Mayor Ducey told Bloomberg News. He also noted that crashes actually increased in his town, casting more doubt on the “public safety” argument.

shutterstock_130775687“I can find other ways to have some savings and bring in revenue,” he added.

With the fate of the program hanging in the balance, towns still counting on that revenue for 2015 could be left to scramble to adjust their budgets.

Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), no doubt the most vocal critic of red light cameras in the legislature, told Watchdog Wire the cameras are “nothing but government-sanction theft from motorists.”

“These towns are balancing their budgets on the backs of ridiculous technical infractions of reasonably behaving motorists,” O’Scanlon added in an interview with NJ Advance Media. “Theft is not sound economic policy. They need to go and find a responsible way to balance their budgets rather than be addicted to the crack of stealing money from motorists.”

Cameras fail

One motorist who was stolen from: Rob Gawley. Recently profiled on NJ.com and the Asbury Park Press, Mr. Gawley was given a ticket for an alleged infraction on July 30. He didn’t recall running a red light, so he asked to see the video. But there was a problem.

shutterstock_148390601 (1)“I immediately noticed the video ‘skipped’ at exactly the spot the alleged violation occurred,” Gawley explained. “The video jumped forward, or skipped, as I approached the traffic stop bar in the road. The camera or computer had a malfunction of some sort, cutting out approximately 10 feet of road travel.”

Despite the problem with the video and no evidence of an infraction, he was told he would need to take the matter to court if he wanted to fight the ticket. Like most hard-working motorists slapped with a ticket, he chose to pay the $85 fine. He just didn’t have the time to fight it.

Due to technical glitches, 17,000 tickets were thrown out earlier this year.

Click here for all our stories on red light cameras in New Jersey.

Featured image: Shutterstock.com 

Josh Kaib

Josh Kaib is the Assistant Editor of Watchdog Wire. Twitter: @joshkaib

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Categories: Budget and Finance, Courts & Law, Must Read, Policy, Waste, Fraud and Abuse
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