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          Front Page

Wrecks Down, but Citations Are Up

By D'Val Westphal

          Remember when we were told the red light camera program would reduce crashes on Albuquerque streets? That violations would drop dramatically as driver behavior changed for the better? That the program would put itself out of business sooner rather than later as folks straightened up and drove right?
        Apparently, people who drive in Albuquerque are slow learners. But one out of three isn't bad — if the one is a drop in serious accidents with injuries.
        Finally, 4 1/2 years after the program's inception, a three-member team of city number crunchers from the Office of Management and Budget has looked at every accident at four of the 20 camera-monitored intersections to compare the number of wrecks in pre-camera 2003 with the average number post-camera. It turns out that crashes inside the intersections are down a lot, crashes outside the intersection are down some, and rear-end crashes haven't really changed much. (The wrecks inside intersections, usually right-angle crashes, are considered the most serious and often involve injuries.)
        The OMB report says:
        • At Montgomery and Eubank — All wrecks dropped; in the intersection (inside the stop bars) from 12 to eight, outside the intersection from 75 to 70, and rear-enders from 43 to 36.
        • At Montgomery and San Mateo — All wrecks dropped; in the intersection from 14 to 13, outside the intersection from 111 to 96, and rear-enders from 59 to 55.
        • At Paseo and Coors — Wrecks in the intersection dropped from 8 to 4, outside the intersection from 174 to 151. Rear-enders stayed flat, at 105.
        • At Juan Tabo and Lomas — Wrecks in the intersection dropped from 16 to 4. Outside the intersection, they went up, from 50 to 57, as did rear-enders, from 26 to 36.
        So overall, wrecks inside intersections were down from 51 to 31, or 39 percent. Wrecks outside the intersections were down from 411 to 376, or 8.5 percent. And rear-enders were statistically flat, at 234. The city is now working with the University of New Mexico to get all 20 intersections analyzed. (Disclosure note: I used the whole numbers in the OMB report instead of forcing readers to take things out three decimal places, so folks who have way too much time on their hands will find the numbers don't add up perfectly.)
        Now a skeptical person might ask why we should give any of these numbers any credence — the last time the city trotted out stats to show the safety efficacy of the camera-citation program (April 2007), it turned out the figures claiming a dramatic drop in "Level I trauma cases" were extrapolated nonsense that officials wiped from the city Web site faster than you could smile and say "cheese."
        Pete Dinelli, the city's chief public safety officer, says that this time the city knows what it's doing and has dedicated more people and resources. Beth Mohr, an executive budget analyst and former San Diego police officer, points out that most camera program evaluations are done by academics, "some professor," not city employees.
        Mohr says she went through every police- and citizen-filed accident report, removed duplicates and ones at other intersections that had been included in error, as well as any that occurred on private property. She categorized those that happened inside the intersection as being caused by disregarding the signal, a failure to yield, or other (like the motorcyclist who popped a wheelie and wiped out); those outside the intersection as rear-enders or other. City economist Jacques Blair took her categorized data and looked at "the average number of accidents before and after" the cameras for any trends.
        Performance improvement manager Theodore Shogry says the final result is a significant reduction in wrecks at all four intersections.
        Mohr says it's also important to point out that according to the New Mexico Department of Transportation, accidents and accidents with injuries are both down significantly citywide since the camera program went live in 2005, giving some credence to the prediction that there would be a spillover safety effect at intersections without cameras.
        "Can we say it's due to the red light program?" she asks. "No. ..."
        "But travel on city streets is safer," finishes Shogry.
        And yet, shutters are clicking away faster than ever, capturing an extra 20,854 red light runners and speeders in 2008 compared with 2007.
        Albuquerque Police Department spokesman John Walsh says at the intersections, red light tickets went from 33,592 to 38,428 and speeding tickets from 69,821 to 74,248. Speed van citations were also up, from 16,375 to 27,966.
        So much for straightening up and driving right.
        Even so, Walsh and Dinelli say the program has changed driver behavior for the better. Walsh attributes some of the increase to having all 20 intersections and three speed vans up and running for all of 2008 (the last intersection, Wyoming and Lomas, was added in April '07, and Walsh says the third speed van wasn't staffed for some of that year).
        Shogry also points out that Paseo and Jefferson was under construction for a good chunk of 2007; when the orange barrels came down, he says, the violations shot up. And Blair says violations are going down at the intersections that have had cameras the longest.
        All say the numbers prove that the program has made city streets safer.
        Based on the OMB report's findings, the city administration is asking the City Council to keep the program and approve a new contract with vendor Redflex, the Arizona company that leases out the equipment and processes the citations. Dinelli says that killing it now would amount to "cutting off your nose to spite your face" and that all concerns raised by a mayoral task force have been addressed. Those ranged from how Redflex gets paid to having that independent review of the program.
        Based on the rise in citations, a few more years couldn't hurt.
        As Mohr says, "Albuquerque drivers have gotten into some bad habits."
        UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. You can reach D'Val at 823-3858 or road@abqjournal.com.
        Council Seeks Info
        City Councilor Brad Winter wants the mayoral administration to turn over all the information it's collected on whether Albuquerque's red light cameras actually reduce accidents or save lives.
        He intends to ask the City Council on Monday to adopt a resolution directing the mayor to turn over the numbers within 60 days.
        Winter says the council deserves the best available information before deciding whether to continue operation of the cameras. His bill says the administration must turn over "verifiable evidence" on the effectiveness of the program.
        Mayor Martin Chávez is planning to seek council approval of a new contract with Redflex, the Arizona company that runs the cameras.
        Monday's meeting starts at 5 p.m. in the council chambers, One Civic Plaza NW.
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