12 Investigates: Are the red light cameras making you safer?

Published: May. 6, 2016 at 3:34 PM EDT|Updated: May. 10, 2016 at 12:12 PM EDT
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PETERSBURG, VA (WWBT) - Thousands of people have gotten a ticket from a red light camera in Central Virginia. Those controversial cameras have been up and running for a few years now.

The automated cameras take photos and are supposed to deter red light runners, but are these cameras in Richmond, Petersburg and Albemarle County really making the intersections safer?

Redflex operates the cameras and is no stranger to seething headlines in recent years, including a federal probe, a bribery scandal and localities pulling the plug on the programs.

"We know the cameras have been controversial across the nation," said Martha Meade with AAA. "We know they have not always been run properly, ethically."

NBC12 teamed up with the AAA and requested a year's worth of crash data for red light camera intersections from localities. We wanted to get a real picture of what's going on. Through the Freedom of Information Act we also asked for financial data.

"We're looking to see that [the cameras are] in the best interest of safety," said Meade. "That they're not about money-making and that they are transparent, because trust is very important. Motorists have lost trust in these kind of programs."

Richmond has two cameras at Elkhart and Hull Street. For years, more crashes happened here than in any other intersection in Richmond. The area averaged around 26 a year. It's not a large number, but it still topped the list.

In 2012, there was nearly $120,000 in damage to vehicles from crashes and 17 people injured. Adding the cameras to this intersections was a no-brainer for Richmond Police Captain Will Smith. He designed Richmond's red light camera program.

"It's monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Smith. "That machine never takes a nap. It never takes lunch."

After careful analysis, it appears those cameras do have people thinking twice about running a red light. Since the cameras were added, this area is no longer one of Richmond's worst intersections - crashes are down by 57 percent.

"We started noticing a difference as soon as we put signs up, as soon as construction started and as soon as we started getting media attention," said Smith.

This area is a gateway into the city for Chesterfield commuters. There was a school here, but it's since closed.

The program also doesn't make the city any money. In the course of a year, it cost $113,000 to run the cameras and only generated $101,000 in revenue. The city didn't lose any money because of its contract with Redflex, so no taxpayer money had to be paid to make up the difference.

"As far as we're concerned, they are running a fair program," said Meade.

Richmond also hinted at adding more cameras. Smith told NBC12 it hasn't been ruled out.

In Albemarle County, the cameras were stationed at Rio Road and Route 29. That intersection averaged 44 crashes a year. After the cameras were added, crashes d ropped by 50 percent. Those dangerous side-impact crashes d ropped 45 percent.

"Albemarle has been absolutely unbelievable in their transparency," added Meade. She says most of their data can even be found online.

Albemarle made about $74,000 in profit over the course of the year NBC12 examined. But the money is allocated to pay for safety - things like child bike helmets and booster seats and radars.

"We're okay if it makes money if it's about safety first," said Meade. "If that money goes back into transportation safety, and it does."

Petersburg has the most cameras in our area - five at three intersections. NBC12 has been asking for its financial data for nearly a year now with no luck. Both Richmond and Albemarle turned over the data.

"There is the potential for some revenue concerns in Petersburg," said Meade.

After going back and forth five times and sending two formal requests for public records,  Petersburg finally turned over some crash data a few days ago. Only after making it clear our deadline was strong. We weren't waiting any longer.

At this point, it's unknown if crashes at these intersections are down or if the city's making money.

"After two FOIA requests, it is frustrating that we've been unable to get that financial data," said Meade. "Unable to analyze this program. Unable to determine if it's about safety or if it's about money."

Petersburg's city attorney told AAA the financial data will be ready soon. Petersburg has had several changes in leadership recently. Many of the people who handled the original requests are no longer there.

NBC12 will bring you an analysis of the city's program as soon as we've received the financial data and reviewed it.

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