GREENSBORO — Call them a big safety measure or Big Brother, red-light cameras cause strong reactions.
But the city of Greensboro is making reducing traffic deaths one of its top priorities and it is rolling out a safety campaign that includes the return of red-light cameras.
For those who don’t know much about them, red-light cameras monitor intersections and snap a photo of any car that passes through after the traffic signal has turned red. Some time later, the alleged violator receives a ticket in the mail with a fine to pay or contest in court.
Adam Fischer, the city of Greensboro’s transportation director, has a report from the last time the city operated red-light cameras about 15 years ago that shows the number of red-light violations decreased at the 18 intersections where cameras were installed. That’s because drivers became more aware of the cameras and cautious as a result.
The report, prepared in 2004, shows that monthly citations dropped from 3,080 in 2001, when the program began, to 2,565 not long before the program was shut down.
Greensboro ended its program in 2005 when courts ruled that North Carolina law requires a city to give 90% of the revenue it collects from such programs to the local school system. Greensboro was paying the company operating the cameras more than 10% of every $50 fine for a red-light violation so the finances didn’t work out.
Fischer said that bringing red-light cameras back will be complicated because city governments need to cooperate with school systems to make the financing add up.
“We would look to offer this to City Council as a policy within the next six months,” Fischer said. “More than likely they would want us to approach the school system to work out revenue sharing. It could take up to a year or longer to implement the program if that’s what the elected officials would like to pursue. I’m going to highly recommend that we should pursue this.”
The City Council has already adopted a resolution that spotlights the new “Vision Zero” campaign to reduce the number of traffic deaths in the city from nearly 40 a year to zero.
The long-range plan is designed as “a data-driven, interdisciplinary approach to dramatically reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries through infrastructure improvements, policy changes, enforcement, education, and community engagement,” according to a May news release from the city.
Fischer said the city has already engaged the community through informal surveys about red-light cameras.
City officials surveyed people recently at two local Walmart stores and online. Fifty-eight percent of the 774 people who took part agreed that the city should implement a red-light camera program, 36% were against the idea, and 6% were neutral or had no comment.
When Greensboro first implemented the cameras, reaction varied and many people said they felt the system was a kind of invasive state surveillance.
Fisher said data showed during the last period of red-light cameras that the city saw a small increase in the number of rear-end collisions when people hit the brakes to stop for red lights. But he said the most dangerous wrecks are those that occur when a car runs a red light and hits another in the side.
“We need to get back into the program to let people know we are serious about zero fatalities,” Fischer said. “And that’s one of the most dangerous things you can do is to run a red light. Some other countries like Australia, Switzerland that are taking their Vision Zero seriously, they have much more severe penalties for red lights and for speeding.”
And once you get used to those red-light cameras, the city may have another traffic monitor to keep you on your toes: Fischer said speeding cameras may be next.
“It depends on how serious the public is going to take Vision Zero and whether they would support automated speed enforcement,” he said. “Some countries that do this have seen fatalities go down.”
In the meantime, Fischer will begin having informal discussions with council members to gauge their reaction and bring the issue to a vote within the next few months.
Any city action would also need a financial agreement from the Guilford County Board of Education.