UPDATED at 6:22 p.m. March 22
By Shelby Sebens | Northwest Watchdog
PORTLAND – Red light cameras at intersections across Oregon have their eyes on you.
But who has eyes on them?
As camera programs continue to ticket red light runners, a state law intended to keep them in check lacks teeth, a review of camera evaluation reports by Northwest Watchdog found.
By law, communities that operate red light camera programs must submit an evaluation report of the programs by March 1 on odd-numbered years, but many provide them late and with little depth.
The law requires the reports to show the effect of the use of the cameras on traffic safety, the degree of public acceptance and the process of administration of the use of the cameras.
What they don’t have to report: how much revenue each jurisdiction earns from the cameras.
Three weeks after that due date in 2013, some of the biennial reports haven’t shown up on the state library’s website. Four of the 10 local governments that run red light programs were late filing or missing reports as of Friday.
State officials say Portland has submitted a hard copy and officials are in the process of getting a report online. Salem also submitted a report the day after Northwest Watchdog started asking for the missing evaluations.
Officials said sometimes there is a delay between receiving the reports and putting them online – especially if they’re not formatted electronically, which the law requires.
As of Friday afternoon, Portland’s report for 2013 was online.
Reports were still missing from the communities of Medford and Newberg as of Friday.
Possibly more troubling is there doesn’t appear to be a set report review process. Legislators get an executive summary of the reports, but there is no formal review. Officials from Beaverton, who have filed their report, said they sent it to legislative administration, but haven’t received a response.
The debate over red light cameras has heightened across the country. More cameras continue to be installed despite a growing public uncertainty over the effectiveness of the traffic devices. Some question whether they actually improve traffic safety or are a cash grab by cities.
Proponents say the cameras decrease the number of crashes and injuries at intersections while also dissuading people from running red lights. Critics have pointed to an increase in rear-end collisions and inconclusive data on other crash reductions.
Legislative Administrator Kevin Hayden said his staff works with cities to make sure the reports are formatted correctly and puts them online. They then send a summary to lawmakers.
“To my knowledge there has not been a detailed evaluation of how well they’re working and what problems might have cropped up,” said Marie Dodds, director of government and public affairs for Triple A Oregon/Idaho. Dodds said the agency has concerns about red light cameras and hears complaints from motorists who feel they were wrongly ticketed.
“They’re not often as black and white as we’d like to think,” she said, adding that the effectiveness can depend on the intersection. “It is not a solve-all solution. Having a red light camera is not necessarily going to do what you want it to do.”
That was Pablo Bravo’s experience. The Beaverton resident got a red light ticket after his tires crossed the intersection turning right .033 of a second after the yellow switched to red. He says he saw the yellow when he was crossing and didn’t have time to stop.
Not all reports list crash data, and the ones that do reflect inconclusive results.
Salem’s report shows a 31 percent decrease in crashes at intersections with cameras and a reduction in red light violations, but the report doesn’t detail the types of crashes and whether they can be attributed to red light violations.
Beaverton Police Lt. Adam Spang compiled Beaverton’s report for the state, which found a 41 percent decrease in crashes with injuries at intersections with the cameras since they were first installed in 2001. But there’s a big caveat. The data from 2001-2010 included crashes where red light running was not a contributing factor, as well as crashes that occurred outside of intersections.
The overall decrease in crashes is a sign the cameras are working, Spang said, but added that the city will look more closely at its data to ensure the accident reductions can be attributed to the cameras.
“I say the cameras are making an impact. They always have,” he said.
Most jurisdictions have seen a significant decrease in the number of red light violations, the reports show, meaning people are using more caution at those intersections.
Beaverton, which was the first community in Oregon to begin a red light program, has issued 25,799 tickets that resulted in a conviction since 2001, with the annual average decreasing by 36 percent since the program began. Salem reports the overall number of red light violations has decreased by 13 percent since the program’s inception there in 2008.
Another component of the program that’s lacking is the requirement for gauging public acceptance.
While some cities have held recent public opinion surveys, others just reference media polls. Albany’s last public survey was in 2005.