Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) signed into law last week a proposal that would create an entirely new form of automated ticketing machine, an “airport business” camera. The move followed his approval last month of legislation designed specifically to revive his state’s moribund red light camera program.
Beginning in July, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority will have the authority to hire a private company to operate a photo enforcement system that would mail tickets worth a maximum of $600 each to the owners of vehicles accused of using the Dulles Access Highway while not on “airport business” (view legislation). This fourteen-mile free road is adjacent to a toll route, but is designed solely for the use of people driving to Dulles international Airport or patronizing a nearby hotel and gas station. The authority intends to raise a significant amount of money by accusing motorists of improperly using the road. The airport authority has not explained how it will know whether the road’s users have a legitimate purpose or not, but the law leaves it to ticket recipients to prove their own innocence.
“Proof of a violation of the authority regulation governing the use of the Dulles Access Highway shall be evidenced by information obtained from the photo-monitoring system or automatic vehicle identification system,” House Bill 1295 states. “A summons issued under this section, which describes a vehicle that… is alleged to have been operated in violation of the authority regulation governing usage of the Dulles Access Highway, shall be prima facie evidence that such vehicle was operated in violation of the authority regulation.”
Another law taking effect in July, House Bill 1292, was specifically designed to encourage local jurisdictions to deploy red light cameras. Under a prior law, private photo enforcement firms were not allowed to directly access confidential information in Department of Motor Vehicle databases. The latter provision raised the cost of automated ticketing to the point where the programs would not turn a profit. Although nearly a dozen cities had enacted red light camera ordinances, only Virginia Beach went to the expense of operating a program with police officers handling the DMV information instead of a private contractor.
The city of Alexandria even announced a start date for its red light camera program and had functional cameras installed, but it declined to begin issuing tickets over the DMV provision. As first reported in the Washington Times, Alexandria officials also shortened the duration of the yellow light at the intersection of South Patrick Street and Gibbon Street in anticipation of camera enforcement. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, shortening the yellow at an intersection by one second can increase the number of tickets issued by 110 percent (view study).
In March 1999, the yellow time at the intersection in question was 4.0 seconds. The four-second timing reflected an increase from a prior setting that yielded, according to city officials at the time of the change, a massive drop in the number of tickets.
“At both Patrick/Gibbon and Seminary/Nottingham other factors significantly contributed to steep drops in our rate of red light running,” Mark Canoyer with the Alexandria Police Department wrote in a 2001 email reprinted in a VDOT report. “In the case of Patrick and Gibbon the cause was a retiming of the lights immediately preceding this intersection which had a profound impact. Similarly, the retiming of the yellow phase at Seminary and Nottingham had a dramatic effect.”
Despite the documented safety benefit from the increase, the intersection now has a signal timing lowered to 3.0 seconds — the absolute minimum allowed under federal law. Engineer Robert M. Garbacz certified this timing as appropriate in Alexandria’s February 19, 2008 application to re-start its red light camera ticketing program. VDOT accepted the signal shortening without question. The Virginia General Assembly voted to allow red light cameras in 2007, despite a report from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) that found that use of automated enforcement resulted in a significant increase in injuries and accidents (view study).
A copy of Alexandria’s red light camera application is available in a 625k PDF file at the source link below.