Red-light cameras raise red flags


As Alexandria begins mailing tickets to motorists caught on camera running red lights at three city intersections, new questions are surfacing about the practicality of enforcing the violations.
Citing an apparent loophole in Virginia state law in an editorial earlier this week, the Washington Times reported offenders caught running red lights at the intersections of Duke and Walker streets, South Patrick and Franklin streets and South Patrick and Gibbon streets neednt worry about paying their $50 fine to the city.
Under the state code regulating red-light camera infractions, if the violator failed to respond to the mailed notices, the matter would be turned over to the Sheriffs Office to serve the individual. Its a practical problem with the system also raised in a 2005 state Department of Transportation study. 
Thus, under Virginias red-light camera statute as it is now worded, the mere mailing of a citation without personal service by a law enforcement officer does not constitute sufficient notice under the statutes own terms, the report states. Unless a jurisdiction is willing to devote resources to implementing extensive in-hand service, citations mailed for red-light camera violations become essentially unenforceable. 
The average citizen is probably not aware of this loophole, but if word got out on a widespread basis, such knowledge could completely undermine the effectiveness of entire red-light camera programs, as citations issued to violators would lose their practical impact.
But Alexandria is bypassing the problem, said Deputy Police Chief Eddie Reyes, who oversees the cameras for the department. Violators can ignore the mailings at their own risk. If the fine isnt eventually paid, it goes back to Redflex Traffic Systems, the vendor running the cameras. 
Redflex then passes it along to a collection agency, he said. 
[Violators] can ignore it, but the consequences are that its going to end up in collection, and a second consequence is that it ends up on a credit report, Reyes said. Were not going to pursue [violators] to make sure its gone to collection, thats entirely up to the vendor.
In that way, the red-light infractions are similar to parking tickets, which if left unpaid end up in the hands of a collection agency, according to officials.
Violators disputing the charge do have another option. They can review the footage with a police officer through an adjudication process and have the choice of taking it to general district court. 
Since the fine is tied to the vehicles registration and subsequently sent to the owner, presumed violators also have the option of proving they werent behind the wheel at the time. 
The Times editorial also blasted local officials for shortening the duration of the yellow light at the Patrick and Gibbon streets intersection from 4 to 3 seconds. A 2005 VDOT report alluded to but did not confirm a change in the yellow light window. 
City officials say there is no truth to the Times allegation, at least in recent years; they could not immediately confirm or deny any changes prior to 2008 when the yellow light intervals at the three surveilled intersections were last reviewed, according to Abi Lerner, deputy director of transportation and environmental services.    
At South Patrick and Franklin streets, the duration was actually lengthened from 3 to 3-and-a-half seconds in 2008. At Duke and Walker, where the speed limit is 35 mph, the interval remained at 4 seconds, he said. At South Patrick and Gibbon, with a speed limit of 25 mph, the duration was left unchanged at 3 seconds.  
All three were reviewed and approved by state officials, Lerner said. 
The city restarted the red-light camera program in July, giving motorists a 30-day grace period before issuing the fines, which ended August 1. Officials hope the cameras will make drivers think twice about running a red light and cut down on accidents. 
The three intersections with cameras are some of the busiest in the city, officials said.