Red-light cameras take traffic enforcement  to new level of automation

The use of red-light cameras for automated traffic enforcement at signaled intersections is getting the green light from an increasing number of municipalities that employ still photos, digital images and video footage to catch violators. First introduced in the 1990s, approximately 1,500 systems in 25 states are being used in an effort to reduce accidents and fatalities.

Transportation safety and law enforcement officials say the reasons these systems are sought after are abundantly clear. Running red lights is one of the leading causes of traffic accidents. The Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) most recent crash statistics show that nearly 1,000 deaths and 176,000 injuries were attributed to red-light offenses in 2003.

The FHWA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) agree red-light cameras can be an effective safety tool to counter red-light running and partnered in 2005 to produce the “Red Light Camera Systems Operational Guidelines.” The guide provides a comprehensive overview of the technology, system installation and citation process.

“Safety is our primary goal, and red-light cameras are one of many safety devices available to communities,” said Jay Richard Capka, federal highway administrator. “However, red-light cameras will never be more effective than driving responsibly.”

Some cities are such strong proponents of the method, they have pooled resources to curb red-light runners. In 2004, approximately 100 LaserCraft (Laser RMS) systems were being installed across 13 Maryland jurisdictions for central operation out of the Howard County Regional Automated Enforcement Center in Columbia, making it the largest single red-light camera program in the country.

Generally, red-light systems are sold and installed as a win-win situation for municipalities, manufacturers and electrical contractors. Typically, there are no out-of-pocket expenses for the jurisdiction, which is a real boon considering advanced digital video cameras can cost up to $50,000 per unit. In Davenport, Iowa, four cameras generated more than $1 million in fines during the first year of operation, which was evenly split between the jurisdiction and Providence, R.I., manufacturer, Nestor Inc. Davenport Electric Contract Co. performed a large portion of that installation and now assists Nestor with system maintenance.

Contractors with public works experience, good references, competitive pricing and the ability to complete multiple projects are finding this segment of the traffic signal market to be a nice slice of the pie, said Barry Van Blaricom, project engineer and registered communication distribution designer with Davenport Electric.

“If you do traffic signal work, this is a logical progression. We have the equipment and the expertise to do the type of work manufacturers need, like installing underground induction loops and DSL lines using horizontal directional drilling (HDD), mounting cameras, designing, digging and pouring concrete foundations, and installing poles,” Van Blaricom said.

Highly competitive and proprietary, the technology is reaching a global market with systems in countries including Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa and Saudi Arabia. Although the stoplight enforcement technique is growing, it has been the target of the American Civil Liberties Union in several states, including Iowa, for criticisms that the cameras are an invasion of privacy and are installed with the primary intent to generate revenue.

While legislative and judicial issues could stunt some market penetration, the public safety benefits and contribution to the communities far outweigh the legal challenges, said Rob Feiler, director of U.S. field services for Redflex Traffic Systems, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company that monitors traffic for more than 100 U.S. cities and several more foreign cities.

Smart systems brake offenders

In a monitored intersection, at least one camera is mounted in the right-of-way behind the approaching vehicle to gain full view of the traffic light and capture license plates. When a vehicle crosses into the intersection once a light has turned red, either sensors or magnetic inductor loops installed in the roadway or above-ground laser or radar detectors will activate a still or video camera to document the violation. According to the FHWA, a vehicle is considered to be “running” a red light only when it crosses into the intersection after the light has turned red.

In Iowa, the City of Clive is sandwiched between fast-growing and affluent western suburbs and Des Moines. Hundreds of commuters cross through the jurisdiction to access the state’s capitol city and eastern suburbs, leading Clive to contract with Redflex to install and monitor four key intersections.

“At first we were having a higher than normal number of false activations, so Redflex recommended going with the in-ground induction loop system. It’s going quite well now,” said Sergeant John Brodersen of City of Clive’s Police Department. The loop installation involved lane closures to cut open pavement, but it is providing accuracy.

Just prior to publication of this article, a Magistrate judge ruled Clive’s traffic cameras violate state law, taking issue not with privacy concerns, but with conflicts in the way fines are levied from violations recorded on camera versus citations given by a police officer. The City of Clive has suspended the usage of its cameras as it appeals the decision.

Although system specifications vary widely, all installations require electrical service supplied by 120 volts or 240 volts power and poles for the cameras. Frequently, a telephone service in the form of a DSL line or other high-speed Internet connection is necessary for real-time monitoring equipment. However, it is a highly proprietary environment.

“Many times manufacturers will let us do terminations in the field located at the camera or at the sensor in the municipality’s cabinet, but they’re very sensitive about their technology. I usually have to sign no-compete and confidentiality agreements to do this work,” said Davenport Electric’s Van Blaricom.

The division of labor reflects that level of intelligence protection. “Our field staff will manage the project, install our proprietary hardware/software, wire out equipment and maintain the photo-enforcement equipment. We rely on the contractor for the construction work and to provide ongoing maintenance for equipment knockdowns,” said Redflex’s Feiler.

Advances in the automated enforcement industry have resulted in a laser traffic detection alternative to photo or video detection. According to Debbie Trainor, director of business development and automated enforcement southeast for Norcross, Ga.-based LaserCraft Inc., this above-ground detection method does not require in-ground loops or piezo sensors and eliminates concerns over interference with existing traffic loops.

“The laser is not impacted by shadows and does not require ambient light. Our laser detection system sends out an active beam. This detection method has proven to be an extremely accurate system that eliminated the roadwork required for in-ground loops or sensors,” Trainor said

Skills and tools build opportunities

Skilled electrical contractors seeking red-light camera work have an obvious advantage over the manufacturer from an installation standpoint. “You’re local, you’ve got the equipment, and you’ve got the resources that they’d usually have to bring to town,” Van Blaricom said.

Still, it’s not a quick, “me too” segment of traffic lighting work. “We seek contractors who have experience working with cities and state DOT engineering departments. We look for contractors who can work with city intersection as-built drawings, our construction managers and tight timelines. The ability to bore conduit, pour concrete foundation and open-cut road surface is required,” Feiler said.

Van Blaricom cautioned that if a contractor doesn’t currently have the equipment or isn’t involved in underground construction, it could be setting itself up for a costly education.

“Nearly every red-light installation requires some trenchless technologies. There’s approximately 200 feet per intersection of HDD work,” he said.

Learning to perform red-light camera installations is like anything else, Van Blaricom said, as there are liability issues, and there’s a price for not pursuing training.

“You will make some mistakes when you’re bidding by not knowing what you’re getting into. You will end up losing money on some jobs. That’s why it’s helpful to use the right tools and get together with a manufacturer or certification organization such as the International Municipal Signal Association that will educate you,” Van Blaricom said.

Manufacturers and contractors are fairly bullish on the future possibilities red-light camera installations afford, at least in the short term.

“As cities and counties seek to enforce more locations, systems will be made smaller with easier ability to relocate to alternative sites. Camera technology changes daily, so systems are constantly offering higher resolution images of the violation,” said LaserCraft’s Trainor.

“Redflex sees a growing market for public safety and photo enforcement. As the market leader with 50 percent market share, we see less than 5 percent of the potential market tapped,” Feiler said.

From a contractor perspective, Van Blaricom doesn’t see the technology as providing long-term work and believes fewer camera systems will be needed as new technologies, like infrared systems, evolve.

“I think this technology will head to a wireless application, which will eliminate some of our work. Plus, there’s a finite number of traffic signals that need monitoring,” Van Blaricom said.

He predicts slower growth over the next five years and a market saturation point where opportunities are limited only to maintenance.

“Still, it’s a piece of the pie for a certain level of contractors, and as old systems have to come down and new ones installed, it generates more work,” Van Blaricom said.  EC

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached at mcclung@lisco.com.