Springfield red light cameras in limbo, used for more than crashes

A new law requiring an officer to be present at intersections with red light cameras went into effect this week. Springfield leaders say removing the cameras will lead to more crashes, while state legislators and the public have criticized the cameras as simply a money grab.

And some cities, including Springfield, have sued the state, claiming the new law is unconstitutional.

Now the courts will decide the future of red light cameras across the state. An injunction issued Monday allowed cities to turn the cameras back on. Springfield city commissioners will discuss their options at next week.

The controversial program has cut crashes in half at the intersections with cameras since 2007. The cameras have also been used for criminal investigations, according to Springfield Police Division Chief Stephen P. Moody.

“It’s not about issuing red light tickets,” Moody said. “It’s an initiative that’s important to the investigative work we do.”

Opponents of the cameras believe cities are using them to generate revenue.

“It’s the biggest rip-off around,” said James Whipp of Springfield.

‘Lives saved’

Springfield has collected about $3.4 million in fines from red light cameras since they were installed. Under the new law, the city has estimated it would have to hire at least 42 officers to run its 17 cameras at 10 intersections.

The city stands to lose about $250,000 this year if the cameras are shelved. Springfield has issued about 77,000 citations since the cameras were installed in 2006.

But city leaders insist the program isn’t about money. The safety numbers speak for themselves, City Manager Jim Bodenmiller said. In 2007, 90 crashes occurred at the intersections with red light cameras. Last year, that number fell to 44 crashes, a 51 percent reduction.

“It’s 45 less people getting in a wreck, which almost always involves two cars,” Bodenmiller said. “We’re talking hundreds of lives potentially saved.”

The overall safety of the community has also increased because some people don’t know the exact location of each camera, Bodenmiller said.

“It just makes you more aware,” Bodenmiller said. “I know when I go to Dayton, I don’t know where they’re all at, but I know they have photo enforcement. I drive a little more carefully. It makes make you think.”

Without the cameras in place, Bodenmiller expects that crashes will spike over time, but not immediately.

Ohio Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, sponsored the legislation. Similar legislation was passed in 2006, but was vetoed by then Gov. Bob Taft.

“I’ve been on this crusade for about a decade,” Seitz said.

Mobile speed-detection units are legal under the law, he said, and he has no issue with them if operated properly.

Some cities may continue their programs under the new laws, such as Parma, which operates mobile traffic cameras in school zones. If the cities choose to operate the cameras with an officer present, Seitz said there will be no change in safety at those intersections.

“It’s a question for the cities to answer,” Seitz said.

Investigation tool

The goal of Springfield’s red light program has always been safety, Moody said.

“We want people to slow down and be patient,” the police chief said. “In today’s world, they’re not. We’re all not.”

The cameras can be used to find suspects for all types of investigations, including bank robberies and shootings, he said. In 2007, the cameras were used in the investigation of three international students who were killed in a crash at Urbana and Moorefield roads. The cameras caught the driver’s activity through the city before the crash, Moody said.

Police can use the cameras to pull the license plate from the vehicle, find the registered owner and begin a search for the possible driver, Moody said.

During crashes at those intersections, he said, the cameras can also be used to see who might be at fault.

“When there are no independent witnesses, the cameras are able to verify who was at fault and we can issue a citation,” Moody said.

The cameras have also been used to track shoplifters fleeing stores, especially on Bechtle Avenue. The division once assisted Dayton police in identifying a rape suspect using the red light cameras, Moody said.

“They’re invaluable to identify the suspect vehicle and maybe get a plate,” he said.

Top intersection

The intersection at Troy Road and Bechtle Avenue had more than 2,500 citations last year, about 38 percent of the overall citations in Springfield. That’s more than double the citations at the second-highest ticketed intersection at High and Spring streets, which saw 1,015 citations last year.

It’s one of the most traveled streets in the city, Springfield Police Sgt. Brett Bauer said.

It’s also the intersection given the most leeway, said Bauer, who inspects the red light camera videos for the police division. If a driver stops, Bauer will give him or her the benefit of the doubt.

“The idea isn’t to hammer every person who doesn’t come to a complete stop at the stop bar,” Bauer said. “That’s the technical definition of the violation, but that’s not the idea behind realizing some kind of safety benefits.”

Before the red light cameras were installed, the city received complaints about Bechtle Avenue and Troy Road, Bodenmiller said, where drivers would run the red light and not leave enough time for other drivers to turn.

“It’s going to lead to some more frustrated drivers,” Bodenmiller said.

The cameras have gone off far less in recent years, dropping from about 23,400 total activations in 2007 to more than 13,500 last year.

“People are more careful,” Bauer said. “They do take the time to go slower and stop in the intersections where they know they’re being monitored. Once they know they’re not being monitored, they’ll go back to their old behavior.”

The future

The city discussed placing officers at certain intersections during peak hours, but Bodenmiller said it’s just impractical with the amount of calls coming to the police division.

“One of the advantages of photo enforcement is that it enabled us to have a good deterrent to keep people from running red lights without having an officer present at all times,” Bodenmiller said. “The law reversed all that and does the exact opposite. It takes away the use of valid, reliable technology.”

The court system will now decide the future of red light cameras. Seitz believes several recent Ohio Supreme Court decisions show state laws often trump a city’s authority, including recently passed laws on fracking and concealed carry regulations.

If the cities win in court, Seitz said, they’ll lose in the court of public opinion.

“The public does not like these things,” Seitz said.

Lawmakers could also require cities who operate photo enforcement programs to report gross revenue each year and cut their state local government funding on a dollar-for-dollar basis, Seitz said.

“It would force an end to their rebellion,” Seitz said.

The cameras have made the streets safer, said Springfield resident Carol Story. She’s hoping the city turns the cameras back on soon, similar to what other communities like Dayton are doing since the recent injunction.

“It somewhat deters people from running red lights,” Story said.

Other residents have a different view on the cameras and believe it’s just about money.

“You can go through a yellow light and it will turn red and you’ll still get a ticket,” Whipp said.

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