LINDEN – No doubt about it, Linden red-light cameras have saved lives and they also have put millions of dollars in city coffers. However, while the city opted to renew their contract for five years, one south Jersey shore community decided enough was enough.
Right now 25 municipalities in 11 counties are involved in the 5-year pilot program that expires the end of the year. A total of 76 intersections are involved in the program being monitored by two red-light camera vendors in the state.
But, more than 30 towns are already lined up and ready to jump on the red-light camera bandwagon, according to Charles Territo, senior vice-president of communications and public affairs for American Traffic Solutions.
Not every municipality feels that way, though.
Last month the mayor of Brick decided he had enough of the controversial but financially lucrative red-light camera pilot program and shut it down. When Linden Mayor Rich Gerbounka heard the news, he offered to take Brick’s three red-light cameras off their hands, confessing the city was in the market to buy more.
“I’ll take as many red-light cameras as I can get,” he quipped, adding that the program is making a difference in Linden.
There is no doubt Gerbounka, a former city veteran police officer, has been an outspoken advocate of the red-light camera program. Not only has it reduced traffic accidents on the deadly Route 1 and Route 9 corridor in Linden, but it is a money maker for the city. Initially, back in 2010, the city was averaging $3 million a year, but that dropped to $1.2 million last year. The mayor, though, while always interested in revenue, is just happy red-light violations are down in the city and drivers are being more cautious.
The money, though, has not been enough incentive for Brick Mayor John Ducey to continue with the program.
Ducey admitted he had concerns about continuing to use the cameras in his municipality, explaining at a news conference Feb. 7 that he was not entirely convinced intersections were safer as a result of these cameras that nab drivers if they venture out into the intersection when the light goes from yellow to red.
Brick was the only municipality in the shore area with red-light cameras, but as far as Ducey was concerned, regardless how much money came in to the municipality, the pilot project was over and done in his community. Brick did make money off the program. In fact, last year this town realized $830,000 in red-light camera ticket revenue.
The Brick mayor claimed at a news conference Feb. 7 that two out of the three intersections armed with the red-light cameras actually had more rear-end crashes and right-angle accidents. This was double the accident rate at two of the intersections over previous years, he said.
Gerbounka’s feelings on this issue are at the other end of the spectrum and have not changed since the cameras were installed in his city back in 2010.
His firm stance comes from decades as a police officer who saw countless horrific accidents. As far as this mayor is concerned, they can debate the issue all they want, but he is 100 percent behind a program that can stop senseless accidents.
“I support red-light safety cameras as much as I support speed limits, seat belts and every other traffic law and safety device available to drivers today,” Gerbounka said in 2012, noting that red light cameras save lives. In fact, he is willing to put his money where his mouth is, he added, and buy Brick’s red-light cameras.
Having been out in the police trenches, the mayor is more than aware of how serious vehicle accidents can be.
“When laws are ignored for the sake of reckless behavior, someone’s safety, someone’s life, is put in jeopardy,” said Gerbounka, adding these cameras help police enforce traffic laws and provide for the safe movement of traffic.
The Linden mayor also explained that red-light cameras are only put at intersections where previous engineering, enforcement and educational efforts were not effective in decreasing traffic violations or crashes attributed to running red lights.
Gerbounka further pointed out that the New Jersey Department of Transportation reported all crashes are not the same. Although any accident is disturbing, he added, rear-end collisions usually only damage the vehicle and not seriously injure passengers. Right-angle crashes or T-bone impacts, however, more often than not end in injury or death to the driver and passengers because of the angle of impact and high rate of speed a driver must travel in order to beat a red-light. The Linden mayor said it is misleading to blame red-light cameras for rear-end collisions because usually the driver is following too closely behind or traveling at too high a rate of speed to stop in time. He noted that in the first 12 months red-light cameras were installed in the state, the number of violations caught on camera fell by 50 percent.
“That shows people are changing the way they drive so they can stop running red lights,” he said, adding “if we can learn to stop on red, we can learn to control our speed and distance from the car ahead of us.”
Last year in April the NJDOT decided against giving the go-ahead for red-light cameras in other locations, pointing out the pilot program was due to expire the end of 2014. In their announcement, the NJDOT explained they need at least two full years of data collected from intersections in order to assess the effectiveness of the cameras.
“The gold standard of engineering for analyzing data is three years of uninterrupted data so if there is approximately 20 months left until the end of the pilot, why activate new cameras?” asked NJDOT Assistant Commissioner Anthony Attanasio at the time.
Data assessed so far has been mixed, according to the DOT. They reported accidents were up slightly at the 24 intersections throughout the state involved in the pilot program, but down “substantially” at two intersections where they were put in two years prior to that time.
At the end of the pilot program the DOT is expected to make a recommendation about further use of the cameras based on at least two year’s worth of data at all intersections involved.
In Linden, police are already ahead of the game, pointing out this week that total traffic crashes were on the decline at the city’s five intersections with red-light cameras.
“The overall contribution to public safety is notable, but the gains are greatest at the city’s three locations with cameras in place since 2010, according to police department records,” said Traffic Bureau Commander Sgt. Michael Babulski.
The change in dangerous right-angle crashes was especially notable at these three intersections, he said, adding that dangerous right-angle crashes were down by one-third at two intersections but remained unchanged at the remaining locations. Total right-angle crashes were down 55 percent at the three year mark at all three intersections, he said, as opposed to when the cameras were not in place.
“We are encouraged with the public safety improvements we see coming out of our red-light safety camera program. The three-year data is especially promising. It demonstrates that people can drive more safely from year to year and maintain that level of safety,” said Babulski, adding “of course we want to see continued improvement.”
A look at citations and violations for Linden provided further evidence of the impact these cameras are having on driver behavior. For example, so far 88 percent of all vehicle owners who received a citation and paid the fine have not received a second violation.
“This indicates a high level of compliance with traffic laws and, as a result, makes our streets safer,” the traffic commander said, mentioning there was an 80 percent decrease in the number of red-light running violations since the camera program began, which he said, meant drivers “are getting the message” to stop on red in the city of Linden.
“As drivers respond to the enforcement presence of red-light cameras, dangerous behavior diminishes, drivers stop running red lights and the probability of dangerous right-angle collisions is reduced,” Babulski said.
Linden was the fifth city to install red-light cameras in the state and has two generations of active red-light cameras. Data from the first generation, August 2010 until July 2013, showed at Route 27 and Stiles Street there was a 15 percent reduction in total crashes, 33 percent reduction in side swipes, 100 percent reduction in front end collisions and 100 percent reduction in pedestrian accidents.
At Route 1 and South Stiles Street, there was a 23 percent reduction in total crashes, 15 percent reduction in rear end collisions, 33 percent reduction in right-angle accidents, 43 percent reduction in sideswipes and 100 percent reduction in front end collisions.
At Route 1 and Park Avenue, police officials reported an 8 percent reduction in accidents, while there was a 9 percent reduction in rear end collisions and 33 percent reduction in right-angle collisions.This also resulted in a decrease in crash costs of more than $300,000 for this time period at all three intersections for a three-year period.
Linden police compared all their red-light camera data with Pleasant Street and Route 1, a nearby intersection not equipped with red-light cameras. This showed a similar trend in crash reductions during the same time period as those with red-light cameras. In fact, there was a 36 percent reduction in total crashes, 15 percent reduction in rear end accidents, 25 percent reduction in side-swipes and 100 percent reduction in front end crashes.
Linden police data estimated that control intersection averaged 25 crashes each year, while the three intersections with cameras averaged 163 crashes a year. It should be noted, Babulski said, locations with the red-light cameras are more dangerous and more likely having an impact on driver behavior at the control intersection.
“In Linden we realize that crash numbers are higher across the state, but we believe this is due to the explosion in distracted driving,” he added, pointing out the use of mobile phones exploded in recent years and people, although most support driving laws, still text and use their mobile phones while driving.
“This leads to delayed reaction time and general lack of concentration while behind the wheel,” Babulski added, mentioning that while there was an average of 24 accident calls prior to the installation of the red-light cameras, now the department is averaging 15 calls a year.
He further noted that because of the red-light cameras, his unit has only been called out six times last year and none of the calls were on the routes 1 and 9 corridors.