Red Light Green 

As the council looks to cameras for 10 intersections, is it a sign of things to come?


Red lights will soon have the city seeing green ... to the tune of more than $1 million.

As part of the 2010 budget — approved last week at just over $600 million — the City Council approved cameras for 10 Memphis intersections to catch drivers running red lights. Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions (ATS) projects that the city will earn $1.8 million in revenue the first year and net just over $1.3 million.

James Tuton, CEO of ATS, said the estimate was based on 15 violations per day at each of the intersections.

"I've been doing this a long time," Tuton said, citing his experiences with New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, and St. Louis. "These number are deliverable."

Actually, if conventional wisdom about Memphis drivers holds true, the numbers are probably conservative. But should the earnings not meet expectations, the city will have the option of terminating the contract after the first year.

Not that anyone claims to be in it for the money.

"It's not designed to produce revenue," Tuton told a council budget committee. "That's a by-product."

Although installation of traffic cameras often result in an initial uptick in rear-end crashes, the overall result is a reduction in injury and side-impact accidents.

"I am in full support of [red-light cameras] for our community," Memphis police director Larry Godwin said. "I think it will reduce accidents."

Because of privacy concerns, the cameras will take a picture of a vehicle's license plate, not the person driving.

"Across the country, we've found it's as successful with just back cameras," Tuton said. "We can add front cameras, but it means more equipment."

Running a red light is typically a moving violation. Since the camera takes a picture of the license plate, the violation will be considered non-moving and no points assigned to the driver's record.

"It's treated similarly to a parking ticket," Godwin said. "It is designed to reduce traffic crashes and fatalities at some of our most dangerous intersections."

The police department is currently compiling a list of which intersections should have the cameras.

If a crash does occur at one of the red-light camera intersections, officers will still make the scene.

"Right now, when people go to court, they say, no, the light was not red on my side, and you have that he said, she said. The camera would be extremely valuable in those situations, especially with fatalities," Godwin said.

The cameras won't be tied to the police department's Real Time Crime center, but they could be used for other purposes, such as finding specific vehicles. Tuton said they would be adapted to such uses and that the fines from tickets would cover the costs.

Despite the projections, the cameras weren't given an automatic green light but met with resistance in committee.

Council members were concerned partially about funding the project and the burden extra tickets might place on the city court system. Budget chair Wanda Halbert said revenue generation wasn't enough to convince her.

"I know we're saying it's self-funded," she said, "but it's still an unknown cost."

Red-light cameras may come to be the first in a line of traffic changes, designed to make streets safer or more lucrative for the city. Or both.

Court clerk Thomas Long hoped to increase the long- standing fee for towing, allow towing for nonpayment of moving violations, and add financial penalties for paying parking tickets late. Though those provisions failed in committee, Long said he's not ready to give up on them.

"We still have a substantial amount of money outstanding that individuals don't pay," Long said. "The only support we have in terms of collecting revenue from moving violations is the revocation of drivers' licenses."

One proposal that seemed more amenable to the council was similar to the red-light cameras.

During a presentation to the budget committee, Godwin said he would like to see speed cameras on Bill Morris Parkway after the successful implementation of the red-light cameras.

"If you don't do 85, you'll get run over out there," he said. "I can't put enough officers out there, and it's unsafe. There's not enough room to make traffic stops."

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