Toledo budgets for $4.2 million in red light camera finesWritten by Dave Willinger | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Toledo police are ticketing thousands of speeders without ever picking up a radar gun.
The city’s traffic camera system generated 68,115 citations in 2012 for speeding and running red lights, according to data provided by Lt. Jeff Sulewski of the Toledo Police Department (TPD) Traffic Section. The traffic camera network, purchased from and maintained by the Arizona-based Redflex Group, has been in operation in the Glass City since 2001. It was expanded to 44 cameras last summer with the addition of 11 cameras at six new locations. Toledo also operates one mobile unit to enforce school zone speed limits, Sulewski said.
Redflex revenue collected by the city in 2012 totaled nearly $3 million. This year, city officials expect to reap even greater financial benefits: Last month Mayor Mike Bell’s administration budgeted $4.2 million in revenue from the cameras, according to city spokesperson Jen Sorgenfrei.
Infractions caught by the system are reviewed by police officers of the traffic section before citations are issued, Sulewski said. Each citation bears a fine of $120, of which $90.25 is remittable to the City of Toledo with the remainder collected by Redflex, a firm that has been in the roadway traffic system business for a quarter-century and operates camera systems in more than 250 cities in the U.S.
Slowing the ‘Indy Race’
The most successful camera location in Toledo, in Sulewski’s view, is the speed camera in place along the Anthony Wayne Trail near the Toledo Zoo. But the Traffic Section lieutenant is not measuring success by the number of tickets generated or total dollars collected from speeders on the Trail. Sulewski is referring to the smoother and safer flow of traffic he has observed at that section of roadway since the installation of the camera.
That section of the Trail — in both directions — used to look like an “Indy race,” Sulewski said. Prior to the installation of the camera, police noted during one 12-hour observation period a total of about 2,000 speeding violations at least 11 mph over the posted limit, he said. While there are still those motorists who speed — Officer Charles Turner of the Traffic Section recalled one Redflex ticket that clocked a speeder at 106 mph at that location — Sulewski said today drivers who stick to the posted speed limit of 50 mph can experience a smooth ride, often catching all the green lights. He credits the camera and publicity around its installation with reducing the dangerous racing and lane-changing culture that used to characterize driving on the Anthony Wayne Trail.
Redflex, headquartered in Phoenix, markets its systems as “making roads safer by implementing traffic safety programs,” company spokesperson Jody Ryan told Toledo Free Press in an email. But academic and industry studies, paired with local accident data, do not appear conclusive. Traffic accident data compiled by Toledo police show a decrease in the number of accidents at some Redflex camera locations during the past decade. But at other intersections, particularly in West Toledo, the number of accidents has increased.
Police listed 43 accidents at Front and Main streets in 2000, the year before the cameras were installed. In 2001 that number fell to 39. By 2011, the last year included in the report, it was 24.
On the other hand, the intersection at Talmadge Road and Sylvania Avenue counted 28 accidents in 2000, the year before the cameras were installed. There were 32 accidents in 2001, the first year of the cameras, and 41 accidents there in 2011. The data does not control for traffic volume during that time period nor does the data include comparisons with similar locations where no cameras have been installed.
Toledo City Councilman D. Michael Collins said he is “not convinced the evidence supports a reduction in accidents.”
Collins, who chairs the Public Safety, Law and Criminal Justice Committee, said he would not support the Redflex cameras if they were solely a cash grab for the city. Instead, he recognizes the role the technology plays.
“The cameras do create a monitoring tool which should not be construed as taking the place of a police officer but — given our manpower situation — there is probably no alternative,” he said.
To put that “manpower situation” in perspective, today’s traffic section consists of seven officers, one sergeant and one lieutenant, as compared to a roster of 25-30 officers in years past, according to Sulewski, a 28-year TPD veteran who has been in the traffic section since 2010. He said the decrease in the number of officers means, “We lost our ability to assign full-time traffic enforcement around the city,” referring to such proactive enforcement as a “luxury” the police no longer have.
Today’s traffic cops are driving their desks for much of their shifts, due to the large amount of paperwork traditionally assigned to the traffic section. Besides reviewing traffic cam video for the citation issuance process, traffic section, despite its reduced staff, continues as in the past to review all police-generated traffic accident reports, 9,723 last year. The section also handles operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol (409 cases) and suspended license cases (1,444), Sulewski said.
Those officers do also get out on the streets of Toledo, investigating, for example, all hit-skip cases, of which there were 2,000 last year, Sulewski said. In addition, the traffic section is responsible for routine inspections of taxis and tow operators in the city. And when his officers are deployed for traffic enforcement, Sulewski said, the existence of the cameras allows his unit to concentrate its available manpower on other areas where the department has received complaints from the public, for example, residential streets and school zones.
Contrary to what some drivers may believe, Sulewski said he does not want to “go out and write a bunch of tickets.” The police lieutenant said his officers, like the traffic cameras, are highly visible when they work traffic enforcement and that is the point. Sulewski wants motorists to think about how they are driving.
“Hopefully, that prevents a serious accident down the road,” he said.
The city holds citation hearings to provide motorists the opportunity to dispute a Redflex ticket they believe is not warranted. Those hearings, which take place Downtown at One Government Center, have been held twice a week since last year’s expansion of the system.
Jim Jones is an attorney contracted by the city to represent it at the hearings. Jones employed a nonconfrontational manner as he explained to ticketed motorists at the outset of a hearing in January that the procedure is a civil, not a criminal matter and thus the city only needs “a preponderance of the evidence” to make its case. “Beyond the shadow of a doubt” is not in play here. Still, the startlingly clear videos of the infractions usually leave little doubt whether someone ran a red light or, as is more often the case, failed to make a complete stop before turning right on red.
Speeding infractions can be harder to judge based solely on the video evidence. But Jones said no one to date has successfully challenged the accuracy of the speed calculated by the Redflex system, which uses two sets of sensors embedded in the pavement to calculate a vehicle’s speed.
After installation and before a speed camera begins operation, police and Redflex technicians together test the equipment against one of TPD’s handheld laser devices. Sulewski said the speeds usually come up identical but if they do not match within 1 mph, it’s the Redflex equipment that gets adjusted accordingly.
Redflex spokesperson Ryan said that her company monitors its equipment “daily through a variety of diagnostic software and systems as well as human interaction.” The company “immediately” responds “to any maintenance issues or alarms that may be triggered,” including response by field teams if the issue cannot be resolved remotely.
Redflex equipment is rated for temperatures as cold as 20 degrees below zero Celsius, according to Ryan, rebutting suggestions by one motorist at a hearing in January that a sudden cold snap may have affected the computerized system’s accuracy.
However, Ryan was not able to estimate the service life of the sensors and other parts of the Redflex system because “there are too many variables and conditions that affect each component differently.” But she also gave assurance that “any component that needs to be replaced is replaced.”
One motorist showed up at the hearing with three citations for speeding, all issued at the same location, Cherry and Delaware streets. The driver said he “saw them working on the lights” and believed the camera could have been malfunctioning. His tickets were all issued for driving 46 mph in a 35 mph zone at intervals of about one month during a three-month period.
“I don’t drive that fast to begin with,” he stated at the hearing.
“I’ll give you a break on one of them,” Jones told the man. “I guess I feel sorry for you. We’ll dismiss one of them for you.” A moment later Jones cautioned the man, “You won’t get that break again.”
Motorists who did not catch a break included one man who seemed to blame his high rate of speed on the condition of the roads.
“You all paved the streets and made them so good,” he said in his defense.
Another driver, cited for a red light violation, claimed she had stopped. When the video was played, it clearly showed her car rolling up to the intersection and continuing into a right turn without halting.
“Well, I did slow down to stop,” was the only defense she could muster. Ticket upheld. A woman cited for speeding in a school zone said she was from California and defended her driving by claiming to be unfamiliar with the area.
“Don’t they have school zones in California?” Jones inquired. Ticket upheld.
Then there was Mardtel Gibbs, who told Jones he had “sped up a little bit” so he would not get ticketed for a red light violation. Gibbs got ticketed for speeding instead. “I’m darned if I do and darned if I don’t,” he said. Outside the hearing room, Gibbs said the traffic camera system “oppresses the people.” He called the system “ridiculous” and objected to the additional red light cameras. “When riots happen, they wonder why,” he said.
There were also a number of ticketed drivers who attended the hearing just to be able to view the video, saying they were unable to pull it up on their home computers from the website run by Redflex. One woman, whose red light ticket was dismissed after the video showed she had in fact stopped before turning right on red, still voiced regrets about the ordeal.
“I feel like it’s bad behavior,” she said.
During one hearing in January, Jones revealed the city’s “secret,” telling those present that the cameras across the system are programmed to only photograph cars traveling at more than 10 mph above the posted limit. At that hearing, however, Jones was quick to add that the programmed threshold may be lowered at any time and reminded the drivers in the room that police have the legal right to enforce speed limits even if the violator is driving only 1 mph too fast.
At that hearing, a total of six tickets were dismissed, three continued and 19 upheld in favor of the city.
Hearings for motorists were continued if the city needed to check information supplied by the motorist or for further deliberation by the city. Otherwise the individual hearings proceed swiftly, in a matter of minutes. Typically, the motorist takes a seat at a table in front of a TV monitor with Jones and a police officer who operates a computer that plays the traffic video associated with each ticket. If a ticket is upheld, the owner of the vehicle has the right to file an appeal in the Common Pleas court. Sorgenfrei said such appeals are rare, with perhaps only four or five filed since the cameras debuted a dozen years ago.
The only Redflex camera currently located in a school zone is on Alexis Road at Whitmer High School, where a school zone speed limit is in effect from 7 a.m. to
8:45 a.m., and from 1:45 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. A separate system of yellow flashing lights warns drivers to slow down. During those hours the camera system, which like all the Redflex equipment operates 24/7, adjusts for the lower speed limit.
Cited motorists repeatedly complained at citation hearings in January that the yellow lights were not flashing when they drove by the school. Sulewski stressed that the yellow flashers are “just a warning that you’re approaching a school zone” and operate separately from the cameras. But Sulewski said police recently built in a buffer ranging from five to 30 minutes during the speed-restricted periods so that the cameras in effect are programmed for the reduced speed limit only during a period of time “when we have the most movement of students and it should be obvious [to motorists], whether there’s a flashing light or not, that you’re in a school zone.”
So what can drivers expect in the future? Both Collins and Sulewski say the city has no plans at this time to further expand the Redflex camera system. Sulewski said the addition of camera locations takes intensive planning and requires approval by the city’s traffic engineers. The city can support only so many of those traffic cams, he said: “At some point you can saturate an area.”
The locations and types of cameras (red light and speed or red light only) are posted on www.toledopolice.com.