Photo by Haley Ausbun. The new red light camera at the Benson Drive and South Puget Drive intersection had the highest citations in the region, in 2018.

Photo by Haley Ausbun. The new red light camera at the Benson Drive and South Puget Drive intersection had the highest citations in the region, in 2018.

Renton gets red-light camera numbers wrong

A news report shows a higher number of collisions in 2018

The city of Renton erroneously reported the number of collisions at South Puget Drive and Talbot Road South, an intersection that had possibly the most citations issued at its red-light camera in 2018, and in the region.

The city originally reported 60 collisions in 2017, which dropped down to 8 in 2018. This number was also reported in the Renton Reporter’s story on the red-light camera in July.

KING 5 looked at red-light cameras in several cities and approached Renton Police Department questioning the intersection data for 2017. The department and traffic engineers who run the collision report reviewed it and confirmed it was incorrect. Now the city reports 24 collisions in 2017 and 24 in 2018.

“None of the numbers we ran were as high as 60. We’ve established it was a typographical error,” Renton Police Department Commander Dan Figaro, head of traffic control, said.

Figaro said it was likely supposed to print with the number of six collisions, and a zero was added.

In the hopes of creating more consistent numbers in the future, the department is going to use 911 calls to track crashes, he said.

The correct data doesn’t support the possibility the red-light camera decreased collisions, or that the intersection was seeing as high of a number of collisions before the camera went into effect. Figaro had listed the number of collisions as one of the reasons for installing the camera, as previously reported in the Renton Reporter. In a recent interview, he said conclusions drawn from the intersection data weren’t the main decider in placing the red light camera.

The collisions were a factor, but in the end that intersection camera still caught 28,822 red-light violations in 2018, he said. He also pointed to the fact the number of citations issued at the intersection has decreased since 2018, meaning people are running the light less and less. The number of violations went down from about 7,800 citations in July 2018, to about 3,500 in July 2019.

“The important underlying factor is all those violations are all valid citations,” he said.

Police Chief Ed VanValey is now reviewing the data for all red-light cameras in Renton, including the collision data. Unlike a speed camera by Renton High School that was removed due to public outcry, in 2013, Figaro said this is not a direct result of public feedback. The department has received both positive and negative comments about the red-light camera, he said. The police chief is reviewing all red-light cameras to make sure the devices lead to safety improvements and they want to make it clear they’re not in the business of revenue.

The new camera did increase revenues for the city, and it was listed as a source of increased revenue in the 2019-2020 budget documents. The South Puget Drive intersection camera, and two other cameras on Grady Way and Logan Avenue, started issuing ticketing violators in July 2018. That year, the city’s citation revenue increased by $1.4 million, bringing the total for all seven red-light cameras and six school zone speed cameras to $3.5 million.

But not every ticket issued at South Puget gets paid— if it did, at $124 per citation, the city would have gotten $3.75 million in additional revenue in 2018. Court Services Director Bonnie Woodrow told Renton Reporter in July photo enforcement has the lowest collection rate of any fines that go through the court system. She said this is because many vehicle owners declare non-responsibility and claim they weren’t behind the wheel during the violation.

The safety concerns for the South Puget Drive intersection are mainly related to drivers running the red light to make a right turn as they come down the hill— if they don’t stop, they risk being hit by drivers on Talbot Road South making a U-turn. Drivers also use the intersecting roads as thoroughfares to get to Interstate 405. The red-light camera monitors three lanes of traffic, and two of them are right-turn lanes.

“That intersection is a lot higher (in violations) than the other ones, but we also think there’s some reasons for that,” Figaro said.

Although the department will consider removing red-light cameras, city hall has already put money towards managing the new workload at the municipal court. The workload for the court increased 88 percent in 2018, and the number of court hearings for the photo violations increased 74 percent. Two new judicial specialists were added in the 2019-2020 biennial budget, and a third position was recently added as part of the mid-biennial budget adjustment, in total costing about $480,000 annually.

“That intersection had a huge impact on the court workload,” Woodrow told Renton Reporter in July. “It doubled our program. We were very surprised.”

Figaro said while he can’t speak to the court’s workload, having these red-light cameras means officers don’t need to stay posted at trouble intersections. Figaro also said he’s directed traffic staff to be lenient on ticketing if the driver stops along the line before their right turn. Many of the drivers who commute through there every day are likely so used to the drive they don’t realize they’re running a red, Figaro said.

The city also pays $99,266.50 a month to American Traffic Solutions for the red light and speed zone camera systems.

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