Caught on camera: red lights around SMU campus cause frustration

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SMU undergraduate and graduate students are frustrated with the timing of traffic lights on Hillcrest Avenue and Daniel Avenue that generated more than 4,000 red-light tickets in 2015. Photo credit: Mollie Mayfield

SMU graduate student Mandy Kline was furious when she received her fourth ticket in less than a year. All of the tickets were for violations right around the SMU campus. All of them were for running red lights that were caught on cameras posted at the intersection.

She’s not alone. Many students say they have the same problem.

Kline said she believes the money collected by cities from traffic fines is the driving force behind the cameras, not safety. There were approximately 8,675 total citations issued by University Park police in 2015. Approximately 4,482 were issued at the intersection of Hillcrest Avenue and Daniel Avenue, according to officials.

“The idea that this is some sort of hidden tax really upsets me the most,” Kline said

University Park Police Sgt. Curtis Ellenburg said that the red light cameras are used for safety reasons and placed at intersections that are hard for officers to monitor, not to raise money for the city.

“These intersections have high vehicular and pedestrian traffic. There are some intersections that have a lot of both. It’s easier to enforce laws with the cameras and hopefully makes the intersections safer,” Ellenburg said in a phone interview. “Pedestrian traffic is one thing that we have a lot of around here and I think it really helps people pay attention and to be a little more careful.”

The devices work by triggering a camera as a vehicle passes over a sensor in the intersection when the light is red. The camera takes pictures of the vehicle’s front license plate and driver. A citation is then mailed to the vehicle’s registered owner, supposedly after a police officer checks the photo of the driver against the driver’s license photo of the registered owner.

The fee for a red light in University Park is $75. If not paid within 30 days from the date of issuance, a $25 penalty is assessed.

“Before a camera is installed at a particular intersection, the company that we use does a survey to determine if the spot is hazardous or has a high level of traffic. After, they make a decision to see if it’s a place that needs a camera,” Ellenburg said.

Supporters of the cameras said they prevent crashes, especially T-bone-style accidents from drivers running red lights.

The intent of the hidden camera system is good because people become aware and watch their speed,” said Stephanie Cham, an SMU student majoring in music therapy and piano performance.

University Park Police controls four cameras at three intersections near SMU campus. The Hillcrest Avenue and Daniel Avenue intersection receives a lot of vehicular and foot traffic. A lot of SMU students walk across this intersection, Ellenburg said.

The Dickens Avenue and Lovers Lane intersection also has a lot of vehicular and pedestrian traffic and is near an elementary school and park.

The Lovers Lane and Preston Road intersection has a lot of vehicular traffic and some pedestrian traffic. The shopping center has been an issue in past years, Ellenburg said, because vehicles had trouble safely backing out of parking spots when trying to go southbound on Preston Road.

“The cameras are all basically at intersections that we feel like have a higher potential of accidents,” Ellenburg said.

Kline was cited in January while driving in the intersection of Daniel Avenue and Hillcrest Avenue, at the northwest corner of campus. The traffic light turned yellow as she hit the intersection and was red before she completely passed through, she said. Kline said she would have been in the middle of the intersection if she had slammed on the brakes.

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The red light camera at the intersection of intersection of Hillcrest Avenue and Daniel Avenue. Photo credit: Caroline Powers

“Having my head thrash forward from slamming on the brakes does not sound like safe driving,” she said.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found that red light camera enforcement along with public awareness can modify driving behavior and has been shown to reduce red-light violations and intersection crashes.

“I was in a minor accident. The light went yellow and I did not have the ability to stop in a safe amount of time. The car in front of me suddenly stopped and I rear-ended them,” Kline said.

Other studies show cameras actually increase those rear-end accidents when drivers know that the red-light camera is there and slam on the brakes at the last minute.

Leah Johnson, an SMU sophomore majoring in applied physiology, said she also has trouble timing the lights around campus and finds herself sometimes running through yellow lights.

“It’s not like I am purposely speeding, it is just hard to stop in a safe amount of time,” she said.

There is no federal rule for how long a yellow light should be illuminated, but the U.S. Department of Transportation recommends three to six seconds. The standard definition of a safe yellow light is arguably hard to nail down, depending on the intersection.

In 1985 the Institute of Transportation Engineers proposed a method to set yellow-light intervals. ITE recommendations aren’t binding, but they are widely used. The formula relies on four factors to determine how long a yellow light should last: vehicle approach speed, driver perception-reaction time, deceleration rate and grade of the road.

Now, for the first time since 1985, the organization is reviewing a proposal that could become its first recommended standard for determining the ideal length of a yellow light.

Using the formula, studies suggest that increasing the length of a short yellow light to meet the proposed standard could reduce red-light running by 30 to 50 percent.

The Daily Campus timed the yellow light at Daniel and Hillcrest using a cell phone timer. The light appeared to remain yellow for approximately 3.8 seconds over 15 timed lights. This is within the ITE guidelines, although on the lower end.

“It seems like the yellow timing definitely has an effect on red-light running,” Johnson said.

To contest a red-light ticket, individuals should follow the directions listed on the ticket to request this option from the court.

Don’t assume that because a camera issued the violation that no one will be there to oppose you. According to Texas police departments, an officer reviews the footage of each violation and signs off before a ticket is issued. For more information about red light tickets visit dallaspolice.net/dpdinfo/safelight.html.

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