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Chapel Hill may put a stop to red-light cameras


When Councilwoman Dorothy Verkerk had an information session last week to defend Chapel Hill's red light camera system, she came armed with free videos, pencils, coasters, pens with plastic signal lights at the top, and posters featuring sports stars, free to all comers. Backing her up was the Washington-based public relations group that had produced all those freebies, the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running, and Affiliated Computer Services, the Dallas-based information technology firm that runs the cameras.

Not there was a man named Will Raymond. Raymond is a Chapel Hill resident who's been fighting the cameras since the program was first voted into existence. He says he doesn't have an organization. He just has a lot of questions and a lot of skepticism about the way ACS and its lobbying group are using statistics to sell their system to the town. "When was the last time you heard about a multi-billion-dollar company doing something for free?" Raymond asks.

Raymond's questions, and those of other citizens, are pushing the Chapel Hill Town Council to get rid of the red light cameras only six months after they've arrived. A vote, rescheduled for Wednesday due to the snow and ice, could be the final battle on the issue in Chapel Hill. ACS has sunk more than $400,000 into the Chapel Hill SafeLight program so far, with just two of the 10 planned camera locations up and running. But for a publicly traded company that reported nearly a billion dollars in revenue in the past financial quarter alone, that's small change. ACS has more at stake--it has a strong foothold in North Carolina, with cameras up in Raleigh, Cary, Greensboro, Fayetteville and Wilmington. If Chapel Hill kicks the company out, it could start a domino effect across the state.

But the company says that's not what this is all about.

"I don't care about making money," said Joe Clark, chief operating officer of ACS, when asked at a public meeting Saturday about the revenue ACS has collected from Chapel Hill tickets. "It's a safety program."

While Councilman Mark Kleinschmidt is the most public opponent of the camera system, Raymond, a software developer in his early 40s, is fighting it on his own time. Raymond says he's not a very political guy, but he's had a lifelong interest in civil liberties and surveillance issues. He had read about ACS and its red light camera programs long before they came to town. "I knew they were creeping across North Carolina just like the hog farms. I never thought that it would ever come to Chapel Hill."

Raymond estimates he's been before the council about 20 times in the past 18 months, often going up, with his scraggly beard and long hair, against ACS's professional, coordinated presentation. "I kept going back because you only get three minutes at a time, so every time I went back, I tried to present a new aspect of this."

This much we know: Tickets arrive in the mail approximately two weeks after the violation occurs, along with a copy of the photograph. For every $50 ticket generated by the system, ACS gets $48 and the town gets $2. If you're caught by the cameras, you've committed only a civil violation, whereas a ticket from a cop at any of the town's other intersections means a criminal violation. About 60 percent of the photos snapped by red-light cameras are unreadable and don't result in a ticket. And photos of license plates can't tell you who the driver is. While the photos themselves become property of the town, violations caught by the cameras won't show up on a person's driving record.

Raymond says he's posed many questions that haven't been answered: How were these intersections chosen? Are they the most dangerous for drivers, or simply the most highly trafficked (meaning more money for ACS)? What metric are we using to calculate our town's safety statistics? If the system was designed to increase safety and decrease crashes, why do its defenders refer to violations rather than collisions when talking about its impact? Is it fair to drivers to register a violation within .3 seconds of the light change? Is there oversight to make sure the cameras are installed correctly? What about the increase in rear-end collisions since the cameras were put in?

In essence, does the system really make drivers in Chapel Hill safer, or is it just fleecing them?

"I'm opposed to this system on principle," Raymond says. "But principle arguments aside, if you're going to get rid of your principles--if that's the cost--you'd at least like what you're buying with your rights to be something that works. And this system doesn't work. It's a scam. There's so much evidence to show that."

Raymond says he's contacted the town traffic engineer, the lead investigator of the Institute for Transportation Research and Education study and federal highway safety officials. He says the more he finds out, the longer his list of problems with the system gets. He says if more citizens and communities do what he did, they'll be faced with the same questions. Then, he says, "The scam starts to unravel."

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