SEEING RED: Aurora, cops across Colorado, fight against statewide traffic camera ban

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AURORA | State legislators are inching toward slamming the brakes on photo red light and photo radar tickets in Aurora and around the state — a move that has city lawmakers turning crimson themselves. 

In a 3-2 vote April 14, the Senate State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee moved forward a measure that would ban the cameras statewide. The ban — which has the support of Republican and Democrat leaders — is now set to go before the full Senate.

“A camera takes a picture, but it doesn’t tell the story,” said Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, a co-sponsor of the bill.

Renfroe said that while the devices have certainly racked up revenue for local governments, it is far less certain whether they actually make the roads any safer. He said some data points to fewer accidents, but other studies show the machines have little effect on safety.

“Our intersections should be about safety and not about
revenue,” he said.

In Aurora, where police have operated the cameras since 2005, the ban on photo red light tickets would likely mean the end to a program that brought in more than $1.5 million last year for local social service agencies.

Aurora City Councilwoman Barb Cleland, chairwoman of city council’s Public Safety Committee, said the cameras make the 14 intersections around the city where they are in use safer.

“I’m not thrilled when I get a red-light ticket, obviously,” Cleland said. “But people are much more cautious going through the intersection.”

Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates testified at the state hearing that the cameras have lead to a 35-percent drop in accidents since city council expanded the program in 2010.

“Again and again I am told people have modified their behavior because of the presence of the cameras,” he said.

While the department’s data shows the devices have reduced accidents in recent years, that hasn’t always been the case in Aurora. In the first few years the devices were in use, police said they actually led to a massive spike in rear-end crashes, likely from drivers slamming on their brakes at the last-second to avoid getting a photo-red ticket. At East Mississippi Avenue and South Potomac Street, for example, rear-end crashes climbed 175 percent from 2005 to 2006.

Still, police said, rear-end crashes are far less dangerous that the T-bone style crashes caused by drivers barreling through a red light. Those crashes, according to Aurora police, are down. At Mississippi and South Chambers Road, for example, T-bone crashes are down about 25 percent since the devices were installed.

Renfroe and other backers of the ban pointed to other studies that show rear-end crashes in Denver are up about 25 percent since the cameras were installed.

There are other measures local governments can use to improve safety at intersections, Renfroe said, including making the yellow light a second longer, or having all the lights at an intersection sit red for an extra second.

Last year, Aurora police issued 61,000 photo red light tickets and 40,000 of those
violators paid their fine. Aurora police Lt. Jeff Turner, who oversees the
department’s traffic section, said the fines totaled about $3.4 million in revenue, but the bulk of that is used to pay for the costs of the program, which is funded solely by the
revenue it generates.

Turner said that the 61,000 tickets issues last year actually make up a small portion of the photos the machines take. The vendor who operates the system only sends about 25 percent of all the total “triggers” back to APD for the officers to consider for tickets, he said. Of those, APD only issues tickets about 75 percent of the time, and only after officers review the video footage and determine they would have written a ticket had they been in their patrol car and witnessed the infraction live, he said.

Unlike in other cities, Aurora police don’t issue tickets for drivers who merely roll a few extra inches into a crosswalk, Turner said.

“If that’s the case, we decline those, we do not send those out,” Turner said. “What we are looking for is someone who clearly ran the light when it was red.”

Cleland said that using the city’s devices in a less-strict way than other cities shows that lawmakers here have done a good job of tweaking the program to Aurora’s specific needs.

“I think we have listened to our constituents,” she said.

Aurora’s city council has voted to approve the devices several times since they were first instituted, including last summer when they approved the devices again on a 7-3 vote. Cleland said state lawmakers are intruding on city council’s
authority.

“It’s not up to them to decide what our ordinance should be,” she said.

Renfroe said transportation is a statewide issue and one where it’s appropriate for state lawmakers to weigh in. And, he said, cities regularly benefit from state-maintained roads in their jurisdiction. In Aurora, those roads include Havana Street and Interstate 225.

“Overall,” he said, “transportation is a statewide concern.”