Would controversial red light cameras make Milwaukee streets safer or just be ticket traps?
Red light and speeding cameras are tools Wisconsin lawmakers say could help curb reckless driving in Milwaukee. Right now, there’s a ban on cameras in the state. Lawmakers want to change that and implement cameras across Milwaukee, but would they be effective in the city?
If legislation was passed, about 40 red light cameras would go up in the city of Milwaukee at high-risk intersections based on Wisconsin DOT data.
There would also be mobile speed traps that would take a picture and ticket drivers going 20 mph or more over the speed limit. To avoid having too many cameras in one area, there would be no more than five traffic light cameras per a Milwaukee Aldermanic District.
Why are lawmakers calling for them?
Hector Hernandez was killed last fall when a driver blew through a Milwaukee intersection at 93 miles an hour, but unfortunately, Hernandez is just one of many cases. Between 2008 and 2016, there were over 8,700 crashes in Milwaukee where a traffic signal was ignored. There have been 35 people who have died from those crashes.
“We need to do something right now, there's an urgency,” State Representative David Crowley said.
Crowley first called for the cameras last year and plans to reintroduce it next session in January.
“It would help not only deter many people from running these red lights but even if we do have fatalities or someone is stealing these cars, we now see those individuals, we now can catch those individuals,” Crowley said.
With just months to go to re-introduce the bill, Crowley hopes to see it speed through in Madison and with that see reckless driving decline.
“We think this is the perfect opportunity to say that we are out there to watch you and that you're keeping everyone on the road safe,” Crowley said.
If the bill passed, red lights cameras and speed traps would be treated like a case study.
After five years in Milwaukee, legislators would review data to see if cameras should be implemented across the state or not. If cameras are successful, they'll work on lifting the ban in Wisconsin.
Where's the evidence to back the cameras up?
Chicago's program started in 2003 and is one of the oldest in the country but has been controversial from the start. The city paid Northwestern University to study their red light camera program.
“To essentially convince people that the city isn't out to get you that they're not doing this just to ticket people you have to have the evidence to show yes this is working,” Principal Investigator, Northwestern University’s Red Light Camera Study Hani Mahmassani said.
The Northwestern University study shows that adding cameras improves driving behavior across the city.
“Now the drivers are aware of these cameras they become more cautious when they drive at other intersections where there may not be cameras,” Mahmassani said.
The study also found a 19 percent decrease in life-threatening side angle and turn crashes.
"Those have more injuries associated with them. That's sort of the objective of red light enforcement is to get greater compliance by drivers to improve the safety,” Mahmassani said.
What can Milwaukee look out for?
Studies have found that since drivers were stopping to avoid getting tickets, numbers of rear-end crashes have gone up in places like Chicago, Washington D.C. and Portland, Oregon.
Crowley's plan calls for Milwaukee to put cameras at high-risk intersections, but as other cities have found out, there are a number of factors to consider.
“For example, if the green time is too short, for a left turn then more people are trying to get through during peak periods and so on. And that leaves a relatively high level of violations. Or the visibility is bad so you honestly don't see it,” Mahmassani said.
In 2012, 540 cities around the country ran camera programs, but that number has dropped to 421 now. Cities have cited a number of issues: Whether crash numbers go up or down, enforcement issues, and ticketing notification problems.
A group in Chicago, 'Abolish Red light Cameras', has been fighting to get rid of the cameras because they simply see them as a money maker for their city.
“There are a lot of people who are upset and still upset and we are going to continuously work until we have this system completely abolished,” Executive Director of Citizens to Abolish Red Light Cameras Mark Wallace said.
Chicago has made an estimated 600 million dollars in red light camera fines since 2004, along with piling up legal issues. They are currently settling a $40 million class-action lawsuit because of unfair ticket notice. Crowley says Wisconsin can learn from mistakes made elsewhere.
“On the state level we can make sure we put parameters in place so that city officials don't abuse this,” Crowley said.