By Mark Carlisle
Study shows high amount of red-light runners
City Council decided to move forward with studies of the potential impact of red-light cameras on problem intersections during the Nov. 21 Council meeting after a study showed tons of red-light runners at one busy intersection.
Council requested a proposal from the Glendale Police Department and the Transportation Department, which will be presented at a future Council meeting. The presentation will also include alternative strategies to deter traffic light violations to decrease the amount of intersection collisions. Several councilmembers approached the possibility of red-light cameras with apprehension, fearing pushback from constituents.
Police Chief Rick St. John said he believes there is evidence that red-light cameras would reduce the number of intersection accidents, but the mayor and other councilmembers wanted to explore other options first.
“Until I’m comfortable knowing that we’ve exercised all those (alternative strategies), I wouldn’t be in favor myself of pushing red-light cameras,” Mayor Jerry Weiers said. “Although I’m not saying I would never be willing to do that, but right now I want to be sure that we’ve tried everything else first.”
The mayor mentioned that speed cameras on Arizona state highways were banned last year, but there was no mention made of the fact that the state Senate is considering a ban of traffic cameras on all Arizona roads after the bill, HB 2525, passed the House in February. The Senate has rejected similar measures in the past.
Glendale Police Department monitored the intersection at 59th Avenue and Bell Road from Sept. 2 to Oct. 1 with discreet cameras and found a total of 9,053 red-light violations over 30 days or one every five minutes.
Mr. St. John said that most intersection collisions are not caused by drivers who do not come to a complete stop when turning right on red, but rather by those going straight through or turning left. Extracting all of the right turn violations, there were 5,391 straight through or left turn violations during the month, an average of one every eight minutes.
These averages are over a 24-hour span. The averages during peak travel times are undoubtedly higher.
Legally, a driver has violated a red-light if his car’s back tire is not beyond the inner line of the cross-walk when the light turns red. For this study, GPD measured by the outer line of the cross walk. Even with this six-foot grace area for drivers, more than 9,000 drivers ran red-lights. Mr. St. John said he believes that had they used the true definition of an intersection, there would have been “well over 10,000” traffic violations.
The cameras were small and there was no signage making drivers aware of them, nor were drivers ticketed for violations. The study was simply to gather data.
From Jan. 1 through Oct. 30 there were 58 intersection-related accidents in the city referred to as a T-bone collision, Mr. St. John said, which indicates that at least one driver disobeyed the signal in some way.
In that same span, there were 202 accidents that involved a red-light violation on a left turn.
Mr. St. John believes red-light cameras would reduce these numbers.
“We know from an article that was produced out of the city of Scottsdale that having a red-light camera in intersections reduced the number of traffic accidents in those intersections in the East Valley.”
Mr. St. John said that he thinks the same effect of reduced collision would take place in Glendale with red-light cameras at traffic lights or even if drivers merely believed there was a camera at an intersection.
“I think there’s data that exists today that already would support that,” he said.
Some members of Council weren’t so sure that red-light cameras were the answer.
Councilwoman Joyce Clark, who was not at the meeting but participated via speakerphone, said that in other Arizona cities, the cost of red-light cameras has, over time, outweighed their effectiveness.
Mayor Weiers, requested information from GPD and the Transportation Department on how many cities had removed radar cameras in the past.
Mr. St. John said that what the department is already doing today – enforcement and education efforts – is reducing traffic accidents, with a 37 percent reduction in fatalities, a significant reduction in injuries caused by traffic accidents and a 1 percent decrease in overall accidents.
Though that last decrease is a small one, Mr. St. John pointed out that there had a been a 23-24 percent increase in accidents over the prior two years. So, the 1 percent decrease represents about a 25 percent swing.
There was only one accident at the studied intersection – at 59th Avenue and Bell Road – in 2017. Mr. St. John said the intersection was ranked as the fourth most dangerous in Glendale and had been averaging about five to seven accidents per year prior to 2017, as best he could remember during the Nov. 21 meeting.
Mr. St. John said he would like for GPD to take credit for the reduction, but has doubts because of the high number of violations found in the study.
“I hope that it is the impact of our enforcement efforts,” he said. “But 9,000 violations in a month – maybe we’re just getting lucky.”
Mayor Weiers said that while he worked as a state representative, he would get calls from upset citizens about red-light and speed enforcement cameras.
“The very reason that the radar was taken off the freeways is even though citizens like it, they like it ‘til they get that first ticket,” Mayor Weiers said. “And then they become very angry.”
The mayor said he prefers officers enforcing the laws on-site.
Mr. St. John said that officers trying to enforce red-light violations on-site is “one of the most dangerous things that our officers do,” saying that it’s unsafe for them to insert him- or herself into traffic to pursue a red-light violator.
An alternative that the mayor had discussed with police officials was one officer at an intersection acting as a “spotter” and another down the road that could pursue a violator at a place where it’s safer to insert him- or herself into traffic.
Councilwoman Lauren Tolmachoff did not think on-site enforcement was the solution, heeding Mr. St. John’s words about the danger to officers as well as on-site enforcement efforts depleting GPD’s resources because it usually takes two officers to enforce one direction of travel at one intersection.
Ms. Tolmachoff suggested an alternative of doubling fines for red-light running to serve as a deterrent and also wondered whether improvement of traffic flow might limit red-light violations.
Transportation Director Trevor Ebersole said the most dangerous intersections in town are graded at a D or below for traffic flow on an A-F scale.
The Council discussed traffic flow at intersections at its Nov. 7 meeting. The Transportation Department recommended that Council lower the city’s standard from C to D, which is the standard of many other Valley cities, to avoid millions in construction costs.
Ms. Tolmachoff suggested as an option upgrading only the most dangerous intersections to both improve the traffic flow and hopefully reduce red-light violations.
“Poor traffic flow makes people take chances they wouldn’t normally take,” she said.
The mayor requested as part of the next presentation on the matter details from the study of the percentage of red-light violations where the driver entered the intersection within a few seconds of the light turning red. He mentioned an alternative of adding more another second or two buffer between the time one light turns red and another direction turns green, suggesting that this could prevent accidents if someone were to run the light just after it turned red.
Mayor Weiers said he realizes this would slow traffic but not as much as an accident would.
Councilman Bart Turner feared the effect would cancel out over time as drivers recognize there is a longer delay, meaning that more drivers will be more willing to run the light because they believe it won’t cause an accident.
Mr. St. John said that GPD and the Transportation Department’s efforts go beyond the safety of just one intersection, but boil down to the culture of driving in Glendale.
“We have a disease in the city Glendale. It’s called bad driving – bad driving behaviors,” he said. “So, we can treat symptoms, we can mitigate, we can make things safer, but new symptoms are always going to pop up because we’re not dealing with the disease.”
Mark Carlisle can be reached at 623-876-2518 or firstname.lastname@example.org.