UNION COUNTY – If you are one of the unlucky drivers issued a ticket through the mail for going through a traffic signal that is being watched by a red-light camera, you may have been unfairly ticketed.
A retired engineer living in Union believes he can proveit is impossible to make it through a yellow light manned by red-light cameras at the intersection of Morris and Stuyvesant Avenues in the three seconds allotted, while one legislator from Monmouth County is determined to get the state to stop the program completely based on his findings.
Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon believes the controversial red-light cameras nabbing drivers trying to make it through a yellow light may be shortchanging drivers by a tenth to a quarter of a second. While that may not seem like a lot, it is enough to raise serious questions about the validity of such tickets.
The Republican assemblyman took on this issue with a vengeance. In fact, he felt so strongly about the unfairness of the red-light cameras, he hired an expert in the field to perform an analysis on eight red-light cameras. The results surprised even O’Scanlon, who believes he has enough evidence to bring this program to a dead stop.
According to this privately funded forensic video analysis of eight red-light cameras in northern New Jersey, including locations in Union, Roselle Park and Springfield, more than 30 percent of the tickets issued could be invalidated. Whether they will be, though, remains at issue.
His expert, Barnet Fagel, who runs a forensic video service called Red Light Doctor, found the eight intersections tested had yellow lights that ran for less time than the state-mandated minimum.
“The credibility of the red-light cameras was on life support,” O’Scanlon said at a news conference Aug. 19, adding “now we are going to pull the plug on the last shreds of credibility.”
O’Scanlon released a video of the lights at these particular eight intersections that ranged from being 0.097 seconds to 0.247 seconds short of the 3 to 4-second time period the state mandated yellow lights must run.
The evidence, O’Scanlon said at a news conference last week, shows red-light cameras are just another way for municipalities and the companies that operate the machines to make money, not improve safety. In some towns, like Union, the red-light cameras have ticketed so many people that the township has made in excess of $1 million a year. Township Administrator Ron Manzella, though, disagreed with this premise, explaining that while initially this was true, that is no longer the case.
Two of the cameras, both at different approaches of Morris Avenue and Salem Road, he said, have resulted in drivers slowing down and not treating this roadway as a speedway.
“We have seen a considerable reduction in accidents and people driving at a safer rate of speed,” he said Monday in an interview with LocalSource. However, while he supported the use of red-light cameras in the community, the township administrator tried to clear up a misconception.
“We do not set the timing of the yellow light,” he said, adding that township engineers or police department officials have nothing to do with this aspect of the red-camera operation.
“That is done by the company operating the cameras.” Manzella said, but added that prior to the cameras being installed, one particular area now manned by the red-light cameras in several locations was not a safe place to drive.
“Morris Avenue was determined to be the most dangerous for pedestrians,” he said, adding that if the cameras save lives, then it is worth it.
“I applaud these cameras because they are saving lives,” Manzella added, explaining how the tapes are reviewed.
“The company that monitors the cameras has a civilian who screens these tapes. The first thing they do is eliminate all the drivers caught that obviously were not in the wrong. That would include fire trucks and other emergency vehicles that go through lights when in route to an emergency,” he said, adding that after that the tapes are sent to Trenton to be reviewed by the New Jersey Department of Transportation.
“Look, although people complain about those cameras, if they save lives then they are worth it. I care about the people whose lives are in jeopardy,” Manzella said, explaining that since the program has been in effect in the township, there have been less accidents and people killed at intersections in Union, although statistics substantiating his claim could not be obtained by press time. He also said the township is not raking in the amount of money they did when the cameras were first installed.
“People are learning to slow down and stop when that light turns yellow,” the township administrator said, which resulted in less red-camera tickets than the first year and more cautious drivers traveling through the intersections that are monitored. The NJDOT numbers do not support Manzella’s claim. In fact, when the state looked at two dozen intersections that have had red-light cameras for two years, they found accidents, particularly rear-end collisions, increased. According to state numbers, rear-end collisions were up by 20 percent, or a $1.2 million “crash severity cost.” This included emergency response, property damage and medical care.
“If you believe the hype, then accidents should be down across the board,” O’Scanlon said.
Gus Manz, a resident of Union who is a retired engineer, received one of those red-light camera tickets. At the time he felt the yellow light at the intersection of Morris Avenue and Stuyvesant Avenue was too short to allow a driver going 25 miles-per-hour to traverse the intersection. In order to prove his case, Manz visited the intersection armed with his engineering knowledge and calculated the number of feet a driver would have to go if they were traveling in either direction on Morris Avenue and were caught by a yellow light.
“If you are going west, or traveling from Elizabeth on Morris Avenue, you have to go 150 feet from the white line. If you are going 25 miles-per-hour, there is no way you can get through that light and not be caught in a red light,” he said.
“You can go through that light in four seconds, but you are going to get hooked,” the retired engineer said, adding that when a driver is going east, a curve in the road at this intersection sets the distance through the light at 128 feet.
“At 25 miles-per-hour, it takes 3.5 seconds to get through that intersection and if you are going 20 miles-per-hour, it takes 4.3 seconds,” Manz said.
“This shows it is impossible to obey the 25 mile-per-hour speed limit and traverse the intersection in three-seconds, which is the measured yellow caution light interval,” he added.
Fagel’s red-light videos showed that yellow lights in the Union County towns of Union, Roselle Park and Springfield were short by a quarter of a second, leaving drivers with not enough time to get through an intersection, as noted by Manz. However, in Union Fagel found the red-light camera at the intersection of Morris Avenue and Salem Road had the real problem.
New Jersey law follows a standard that calls for the timing of a yellow light to be set at one second for every 10 miles-per-hour of the posted speed limit. For instance, a yellow light on a road with a 50 mile-per-hour speed limit should allow a driver five seconds to get through the intersection before the light turns to red. O’Scanlon said New Jersey is not following that rule. This is not the first time questions have surfaced over the validity of red-light cameras. In June 2012 the state DOT suspended 63 of the 85 cameras in the state, including those in Union, until questions about the cameras could be answered by the companies manning this system. Thirty-six days later the suspension was lifted and the DOT determined the red-light cameras met the standards required. O’Scanlon thinks the state is wrong and the yellow lights are still too quick.
“These companies don’t give a damn about safety,” the assemblyman said, adding “they use safety as a way to reach into your pocket.”
Recently nearly 500,000 motorists in 18 New Jersey towns, including Linden, Roselle Park and Union, received notice about a $4.2 million settlement involving tickets issued as a result of red-light cameras. The class action lawsuit argued that officials failed to conduct an initial traffic study and failed to regularly inspect the red-light camera devices. Neither the towns nor American Traffic Solutions, the company monitoring the red-light devices in the towns involved, admitted any wrongdoing, but the company agreed to pay a settlement if a judge approved. The minimum payout would be $8.50, or ten cents on the dollar of an $85 ticket.