As soon as last Wednesday’s Chapel Hill town council meeting was over, employees of Affiliated Computer Services were handing out official statements on company letterhead, saying they were “disappointed” with the council’s vote to end the red light camera system. Nearly three hours of citizen testimony and heated debate, including tales of personal tragedy and detailed explanations of the systems’ workings, culminated in the expected result: a 5-4 decision to kick ACS out of Chapel Hill.
“I’m not for unsafe intersections,” said Council member Mark Kleinschmidt, who initiated the petition to end the red light camera system, “but when you weigh the costs and benefits of this system in particular, I don’t think Chapel Hill wins. I think we compromise too much.”
Mayor Kevin Foy, who cast the final vote to end the program, spoke harshly about what he sees as the system’s flaws. “This system creates perverse incentives,” Foy said, pointing out that a red light camera violation amounts to a civil offense and a $50 fine, whereas a ticket for running a red light at any of the town’s other intersections is a criminal offense and costs nearly $120 in both the ticket and court costs. For every $50 ticket generated by the camera system, $48 goes to the multi-billion dollar Dallas-based company ACS; $2 goes to the town.
For weeks prior to the vote, lobbyists from the red light camera industry had pressured council members not to eject the company and terminate the system, which has only been in operation for four months. Leslie Blakey of the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running, an industry-funded Washington-based public relations firm, came to town with Joe Clark, chief operating officer of ACS’s “state and local solutions” division, bringing with them a woman named Ann Sweet, who regularly tells the story of her daughter’s death when she attends red-light camera information sessions across the country. All three spoke at the council meeting.
It wasn’t the $400,000 that the company had invested in the Chapel Hill system that brought such concerted effort from these lobbyists. It was the precedent that Chapel Hill has set, tossing out a system that ACS is trying to implement throughout the state of North Carolina.
“ACS’s motivation is profit, not safety,” council member Cam Hill said at the meeting. “The conflicts of interest obscure every possible benefit.”
Council member Edith Wiggins spoke passionately in defense of the system. “If you’re caught by the cameras, you know that you were not the victim of selective enforcement,” she said.
“Precisely when an issue becomes so emotional,” said council member Sally Greene, whose brother in law was killed in Charlotte 10 years ago by a red-light runner, “it’s the responsibility of those of us who are elected to serve your interests not to set aside or ignore the emotion but to filter it through facts and evidence.” Greene voted to terminate the camera program, citing a fundamental “tension between economics and safety” that made it a bad solution.
So what now? The cameras could stay in place. Council member Dorothy Verkerk, the main proponent of the camera system, said she would like the town to consider administering the SafeLight program with a different company. But that doesn’t seem likely. Kleinschmidt proposed that the town traffic engineer undertake a detailed assessment of the town’s 97 intersections in order to determine which are the most dangerous and what sorts of engineering solutions could make those intersections safer for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. In the rush to make a deal with ACS, he says, that assessment was never done.