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You could help put Seattle in the black if a camera catches you running a red. But is the price for

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You could help put Seattle in the black if a camera catches you running a red. But is the price for safer streets too high? 

Photo Sensitive

When Mike McKim made a right turn on red at the corner of NW Market Street and 15th Avenue NW in Ballard last December, there was absolutely nothing remarkable about it. No oncoming traffic. No one in the crosswalk. Just “city driving,” as he calls it.

But the video taken by the intersection’s traffic-light camera told another story, revealing that McKim failed to come to a complete stop before turning right on red. His infraction—one of 4,199 violations captured last December by Seattle’s 30 traffic-light cameras—cost him $124.

Since 2005, 20 jurisdictions across Washington have deployed red-light and speed cameras to improve traffic safety, applying the hammer of $100-plus fines to make their point. After initiating a six-camera pilot program in 2006, Seattle installed 24 more cameras between 2008 and this year. Want to push yellow? Want to roll through a right turn on red? It’ll cost you.

Despite their increasing use, these cameras continue to raise a lot of questions. First and foremost: Do they make traffic safer?

Traffic-safety officials believe the cameras certainly reduce the number of vehicles that speed through red lights. They probably don’t reduce the number of accidents, but they may lessen the severity by trading nasty right-angle collisions for comparatively less dangerous rear-enders (from motorists being struck from behind after slamming on their brakes so as not to trigger the cameras).

The Seattle Police Department reported as much in a December 2008 study (seattle.gov/police/programs/technology/redlight.htm) based on two years of pilot-project data. A more recent study of Spokane’s two red-light cameras suggests the same, which squares with a 2007 study in Virginia (vtrc.virginiadot.org/doc/VTRCAnnualReport07.pdf) that many consider to be among the most comprehensive on the subject. (It continues to receive headlines for its finding that red-light cameras increased traffic accidents by 12 percent.) So what constitutes “safer”—fewer motorists running red lights, but more fender benders?

One thing not in question about red-light cameras: They make a lot of money. This is true for the jurisdiction that permits them, as well as for the company that owns, installs and operates them. In the case of Seattle, that’s American Traffic Solutions of Scottsdale, Arizona.

Seattle Police Department spokesman Sean Whitcomb says ATS charges Seattle $3,500 a month for each camera monitoring as many as two lanes, and $3,750 per month for each camera covering three lanes or more. That’s more than $1.2 million a year going to ATS from Seattle alone. Whitcomb says ATS can charge an additional $5 for every infraction after the first 800 caught at each camera. He says that proviso has never been activated and uses it as evidence that SPD’s contract with ATS does not contain an incentive to ticket more motorists to raise revenue.

Still, take those 4,199 notices of infraction (NOIs)—they are not “tickets” per se—issued last December at $124 a pop. The city’s experience is that about 75 percent are paid, which comes to $390,507 for one month. Multiply that by 12 months and that’s real money (nearly $4.7 million before the city’s payment to ATS).

Math like that engenders the almost universal claim that red-light cameras are simply revenue-generating machines. Bonney Lake city administrator Do