Red Light Reality Check: CALL7 investigation reveals cameras may not make Denver streets safer

Crashes decline at locations without cameras

DENVER - Intersections with red light cameras have seen a decline in crashes, but it may not be because of the cameras themselves.

The program, which started in Denver in 2008, includes cameras at four locations: westbound 8th Avenue at southbound Speer Boulevard, eastbound 6th Avenue at Lincoln Street, eastbound 6th Avenue at Kalamath Street, and northbound Quebec Street at 36th Avenue. Total revenue for the program has topped $1 million per year since at least 2011.

Denver Police Chief Robert White, who took over the department in 2011, said the sole motivation is public safety.

"For us, it's all about trying to prevent accidents," he said.

But critics, including Denver's own city auditor, have questioned whether the cameras are actually making Denver streets safer -- or just making money.

More than six years ago, when the red light cameras were installed, Denver also made several other changes to those intersections. The alterations included changing the length of yellow lights, and installing pedestrian push buttons. 

Simultaneously, Denver made the same changes at four "control" intersections, but did not install red light cameras at those locations, according to a 2011 data review.

When the CALL7 Investigators compared the four years of data before the installation and after, they found a similar decrease in collisions at both the control intersections and intersections with the red light cameras. Control intersections had a 57 percent average decrease and red light camera intersections had a 65 percent average decrease.

What's more, a 2011 city audit questioned the locations where DPD chose to place the cameras. City Auditor Dennis Gallagher noted Denver's traffic department had created a list of the "Top 100" most crash-prone intersections and wrote, "[t]he four intersections chosen for the photo red light pilot program were not all among the intersections with the highest number of accidents … and 36th and Quebec was not on the Top 100 list."

An analysis by the CALL7 Investigators found that between 2005 and 2013, only three crashes were caused by drivers running the red light at northbound Quebec Street and 36th Avenue, where one of the city's four cameras was placed. But the same camera has generated tens of thousands of tickets.

"They're certainly not concerned about safety," said Mark Braunlich, who received a ticket at 36th and Quebec for coming to a complete stop on the stop line, rather than behind it.

"When I read it, that I had gone beyond this white line, it just seemed so absurd," he said. "It was a very responsible right-hand turn."

The 2011 audit also criticized DPD for including stop line violations in its red light camera program, noting that "Denver is the only Colorado jurisdiction to enforce stop line violations" and recommending DPD "re-evaluate enforcing red light violations at the stop line." The auditor also noted that an earlier re-tooling of the system "to more effectively capture" such violations "resulted in a significant increase in revenue," and wrote, "enforcing a policy that increases revenues, while not having justified the safety impact of the program, creates a risk for DPD that the public may potentially see the red light program as a revenue generator rather than a public safety program."

But DPD continued to fine drivers for stop line violations, though it reduced the amount for those infractions from $75 to $40.

Braunlich said it's all evidence the program exists to generate revenue, not prevent crashes.

"My violation has nothing to do with safety," he said. "Let me put it this way, it's certainly an income stream, isn't it?"

In fact, according to DPD, Denver's red light camera program has generated more than $5 million since the beginning of 2011. Yet department data also shows 37 percent of all tickets issued by the program came from the camera at northbound Quebec Street and 36th Avenue -- a location that saw only three red light related crashes in nine years.

CALL7 Investigator Keli Rabon asked White why DPD chose that location, given the low number of crashes -- and the high number of tickets.

"How can you say it's not about revenue?" she asked.

"I can tell you it's not about revenue," he replied. "I can tell you, unequivocally, that the only reason I am interested in red lights or anything else as it relates to traffic is for the safety of our residents."

"Even at an intersection that's had so few crashes?" Rabon asked.

"So few crashes, but so many complaints. And so many violations," White said. "The fact that it generates revenue is not something that I consider when it comes to placing red light cameras."

Braunlich said he doesn't believe that.

"When you're disingenuous in saying that you're trying to solve a safety problem, as a justification for, for getting income streams to the city, I think that's clearly an abuse of power," he said.

Gallagher warned DPD about the same public perception in his 2011 audit -- and again in his April 2014 testimony before the Colorado House of Representatives State Affairs Committee regarding both Denver's red light cameras and photo radar programs.

"Because these programs were sold as public safety enhancements but are widely viewed as a 'cash grab' by the public, it undermines public trust to maintain photo enforcement programs that are profitable but whose safety impact has not been conclusively shown," Gallagher said in that testimony. "To our knowledge, the Denver Police Department still cannot demonstrate that either program has had a tangible impact on improving safety."

"I disagree with the auditor," White said. "We just have a difference of opinion."

The CALL7 analysis found every one of the Denver's camera locations has dropped in the rankings of crashes caused by drivers who ran red lights. From 2009 to 2012, the first four calendar years after the cameras were installed, more than 600 spots in the city had more such crashes than Quebec and 36th. And several of those spots had more red light crashes than every one of the camera locations.

Color key: Purple = 1, Green = 2-5, Yellow = 5 - 10, Pink 10 - 20, Red = 20+

Neighbors living at York Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard have seen more than a dozen red light-related crashes there during the same 2009 to 2012 time period.

"We have a lot of accidents," said Bonnie Gregory, who lives one house down from that intersection.

Gregory said relocating a camera to northbound York at MLK, where 13 red light runners caused crashes in four years, could be the solution.

"What's the priority of the police department?" she asked. "Is it to fund the program or is it to make the streets safer?"

DPD has neither expanded the program beyond the four original cameras, nor changed those cameras' locations.

"Why not move the cameras to other locations that may need them more?" Rabon asked White.

"Moving cameras is not as simple as moving a camera," he said. "There's a lot of work that goes into … picking those locations and putting cameras there."

The city's contract with ACS State & Local Solutions, Inc., which operates the red light camera program, specifies moving an existing camera costs anywhere from $49,908 to $73,440, depending on the location -- about six percent of the program's annual revenue.

That contract is set to expire at the end of 2014. White said he does plan to continue the red light camera program, but said he had not decided whether DPD will move and/or add any cameras.

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If you have a news tip or follow-up to this story, e-mail Keli Rabon. You can also connect with me on Facebook or through Twitter @KeliRabon.

 

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