Staff photo by Allison Potter
Signs at intersections in Wilmington, like this one at Market Street
and New Centre Drive, warn drivers of red light cameras.
Wilmington is now one in four cities in North Carolina with operating red light cameras after Cary’s 17 red light cameras were disabled on Aug. 18.
The city renewed a one-year contract with American Traffic Solutions, a contracted company based in Arizona, at the Aug. 21 city council meeting.
Raleigh, Knightdale and Wendell are the three other cities with SafeLight programs. The programs were designed to decrease the number of motorists who run red lights and the number of crashes from the traffic offense.
It is Don Bennett’s job to help ensure the program is working effectively from his office located on Operations Drive.
The traffic engineer, who has worked for the city since 1997, has even been through the civil citation process one time himself about two years ago. He said he used it as an opportunity to learn more about how that side of the system works.
On an average day, Bennett spends about 40 percent of his time with the red light cameras, down from about 50 percent.
The 2006 United States Supreme Court case Shavitz v. City of High Point ruled that
90 percent of fine revenue collected from the camera citations must be handed over to local school systems.
“That’s when the majority of the North Carolina jurisdictions did away with their programs,” Bennett said.
The 13 Wilmington cameras were included as a possible service reduction in the 2012-13 budget process, he said.
But Bennett said the program comes down to two main things: the philosophical decision that the intersection is dangerous enough for 24-hour surveillance, and the cost of manpower versus the cost of machinery.
“SafeLight helps,” he said. “It doesn’t cure the whole problem.”
The money paid to American Traffic Solutions, $35 of each $50 citation, includes equipment, data processing and one customer service representative.
The city then pays a match of about $30 to the New Hanover County Board of Education, for a total of $45 per $50 citation.
About 2,100 citations are issued per month systemwide. And every two months, 20 to 25 citation appeals are filed for an average 0.5 percent contested rate.
The city’s money, $250,000 for fiscal year 2012-13, supports the school board’s general fund. More than $6.5 million total, and about $600,000 per year, has gone to the school board since the program’s inception in March 2000.
“It’s like all the other resources; it’s greatly appreciated,” said school board chairman Donald Hayes. “We appreciate the city continuing the red light cameras in Wilmington. With budgets being cut the last several years, it’s nice that money was still coming in. It helped.”
Hayes himself has contributed to the fund, but only once, he said.
“It’s not just the money; I personally feel that it does make a difference from a safety
point-of-view,” Hayes said. “There are some that would argue that. My personal view is that I think it’s a safety factor, and I think that outweighs the money.”
All of the civil citations are mailed with a photo and instructions. A ticket issued for the same offense by a police officer would be a criminal citation.
“If they make an attempt to back up and clear the intersection, we won’t issue a citation,” Bennett said. “The machinery does not sit on the side of the road and spit out tickets. It just collects the data, and then a chain of about four individuals has to review that data and make sure that everything is correct.”
The appeals process is handled case-by-case by two University of North Carolina Wilmington professors.
“The transfer of liability is fairly common,” Bennett said.
Senator Don East sponsored bill S187 to stop the use of the cameras throughout the state.
In a phone interview Friday, Aug. 24, East said he does not, and never will, support the use of the cameras, and that he will do his best to get rid of them.
“I will file the bill again,” he said. “And I think the house will probably take a little different look at it, because of all of this controversy that’s recently come up in the city of Cary with regard to red light cameras. No. 1, I don’t think they’re accurate. No. 2, I think it’s a money grab.”