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Sunday, May 26, 2024

City loses money on red light cameras, data shows minimal crash differences

According to data from Market Street and 23rd, T-bone accidents have been reduced since a red-light camera was implemented but rear-end collisions have increased. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

WILMINGTON — An already controversial city program, which garnered legal issues in the last few years, is costing the government half-a-million dollars to operate. While some city officials support its continued use, citing a reduction in accidents, the decline is not very significant.

The SafeLight Camera Program, with a goal to reduce T-bone crashes at certain intersections, tracks individuals who run a traffic light once it’s red.

It was revealed during budget sessions earlier this year that the city is actually losing money on the program; though city staff and Wilmington Police Department have touted its benefit.

City manager Tony Caudle told council during a July 5 agenda briefing the WPD and city’s traffic engineering department have both requested continual use of the program.

“Not a contractual obligation but simply because of the public safety issues associated with it,” Caudle said. “Folks running red lights, police departments use it sometimes for surveillance issues, so there’s advocacy on the part of staff to continue.”

He also said, with the city’s most recent contractual update with American Traffic Solutions, owners of SafeLight, some of the cameras were relocated.

The city entered into a four-year, seven-month agreement with ATS in November 2020. The cameras are considered legal in North Carolina and 23 other states; they are outlawed in 10.

In 2018, the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors notified the city that American Traffic Solutions, the company hired to install and maintain the cameras, was not licensed by the state to provide such service. Basically, the cameras installed over two decades ago were in violation of state law.

READ MORE: Wilmington responds to state ruling, says red-light cameras are still legal

ALSO: Engineering board rules Wilmington’s red-light cameras installed in violation of state law

WPD uses the system as an investigative tool for when accidents occur. Lt. Leslie Irving told PCD last year, the videos capture enough information for officers to determine who is at fault during an accident. Filming begins as soon as a vehicle enters the intersection.

“I wish it was on the corner of every major intersection,” Irving said at the time.

Right now, 13 cameras have been placed throughout the city since 2000; they often get relocated based on crash reports. 

Data released to Port City Daily from the city’s traffic engineering department indicate crashes at Market and 23rd streets have reduced at a nominal rate. But the types of crashes have changed with fewer severe outcomes.

From 2000 to 2009, when there was not a camera at the busy intersection, there were 111 total crashes. Once one was placed in 2010, crashes were reduced by almost 10% over the course of 10 years.

Angle-type crashes, often referred to as T-bone crashes and considered more severe, have gone down by 30% for west bound accidents and 10% for east bound from 2010 to 2019. From 2000 to 2009, there were 20 total T-bone crashes, compared to 16 in the 10 years following.

However, there are more rear-end accidents following the implementation of the SafeLight cameras, indicating more people are stopping as it turns red, causing vehicles behind to stop short.

Rear-end crashes have increased 27% for west bound faults and 5% for east bound faults. From 2000 to 2009, there were 30 rear-end accidents compared to 34 in the 10 years after the camera was installed.

Operating under 24-hour surveillance, the SafeLight system takes a photo of a driver’s license plate, followed by a mailed citation to the vehicle owner. The hope is once someone receives a civil citation — $50 with an additional $50 late penalty tacked on — that driver will think twice before doing it again in the future.

City council member Clifford Barnett said it’s worked for him personally.

“As an individual who has contributed to that fund, I do recognize that I slow down when I come to the light,” he said during a June meeting. “So, I think it works. I mean, I know it works.”

Agreeing with Barnett, council member Kevin Spears said it’s an appropriate price to pay for the safety of residents. 

Mayor pro tem Margaret Haynes suggested contacting state legislators to alter the rules and allow the city to at least retain enough money to cover the cost of the program.

The city is appropriating nearly $2 million to operate the SafeLight system in fiscal year 2024, a 15% decrease from 2023. 

The amount the city pays for the program is based on the fines collected. The city is estimating about $1.5 million in fines and late fees to come in the next fiscal year.

City spokesperson Jerod Patterson further explained to PCD there is a base operating cost for the program. Revenue from citations helps offset the city’s expense, so less citations means less money to cover administrative costs. 

In 2021, 42,255 citations were issued within Wilmington; in 2022, 46,087 were issued.

City council member Luke Waddell first broached the subject of losing money on SafeLight two months ago. He told Port City Daily he was never a big fan of the program to begin with but always assumed it was net neutral in the budget.

“I don’t like losing money,” he said. “And it seems like it’s losing money — and consistently.”

He revealed at a June 21 council meeting the city lost $165,000 in 2021 and nearly double that, $220,000, in 2022. 

Finance director Jennifer Maready explained to council the difference in cost for 2022 was due to replacing equipment. She said the video is now higher quality and captures better images, and it documents if multiple cars run a light.

New Hanover County contributes to the operating cost of the SafeLight program. The county and city split 10% of the revenues, with 90% allocated directly to New Hanover County Schools per state statute.

Since 2013, NHCS has received $10.2 million from the SafeLight program, according to spokesperson Russell Clark. Funds are not restricted in use and go into the schools Local Current Expense Fund, used to pay for additional positions, supplies, and equipment not covered by state and federal money.

In fiscal year 2021-2022, the schools received $1.4 million, and as of June 9, NHCS has been given $1.1 million for the current fiscal year. 

A percentage of the profits is also split with charter schools, but the amount varies month to month depending on enrollment, Clark explained. In May, charter schools received 7% of the fines and forfeitures.

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