City studies traffic

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 31, 2008

NATCHEZ — A traffic study conducted on Thursday showed that one single traffic light in Natchez was violated 80 times in six hours.

The study was done to determine which traffic lights on city streets will be equipped with surveillance cameras.

The board of aldermen approved the placement of these cameras — which instantly click on when a light turns red — on certain city signals.

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And best of all, it will be of no cost to the city. Mayor Jake Middleton said the costs of camera installation and maintenance is completely incurred by the company touting the cameras, Red Speed Mississippi.

Red Speed representative Tom Ramsey said the profits from each $120 ticket written is split 50-50 between the city and Red Speed.

The cameras operate on no power until a signal turns red. Half a second after the signal turns red, the camera turns on and takes a digital image and a 12-second video of an automobile running the red light.

If a motorist is crossing the white line at the intersection after the light turns, the camera will record the violation with three different pictures.

The first picture is the car before the white line, the second picture is the vehicle in the intersection underneath the light — the speed at which the car is traveling is recorded, too — and the third picture is a close up of the license plate.

Taking a picture of the car in front of the white line is key, Ramsey said, because if a car is in the intersection as the light turns, that’s not running a red light.

The pictures of the violation are sent to the Red Speed office, where a designated reviewer views the documentation, makes a decision and then sends it to a supervisor who does the same.

The pictures then go to the DMV, where it’s decided if there was a violation. Then the pictures go to the Natchez Police Department, where an officer decides if it’s a violation.

“The police officer locally has the final say, it’s not up to us,” Ramsey said.

After all is said and done and a ticket is issued, a motorist can contest the ticket in court.

Ramsey said one of the major misconceptions of the red light system is that it’s all technical, with no people involved, and that there’s no due process.

“A lot of people have this notion of some draconian computer spitting out violations at will, but four human beings review it before it takes issue, and you can still go before a judge,” he said.

And certain scenarios like clearing the way for an ambulance or a funeral procession are not punished if it involves violating a red light.

“It’s reviewed by police officers so it’s the same as if a cop was sitting there, except for the fact it’s a cop that never blinks,” he said.

Natchez Police Chief Mike Mullins said there is a need for such a device in the city.

He said the police department writes approximately 60 accident reports per month, 40 percent of which include injuries.

“And that’s pretty constant,” Mullins said.

Insurance companies report that for every 30 wrecks with injuries there are per month, the police should be writing an equivalent of 10 to 15 hazardous moving violation tickets.

Hazardous moving violation tickets include no signaling, stop sign and light violations or anything that could cause a wreck.

As far as writing these violations, Mullins said the police department is far behind.

So if the average for traffic accidents with injuries is 20 per month, by the insurance equation, NPD should be writing at least 200 tickets a month.

“For the last three years, we’ve been writing 120 a month,” Mullins said.

NPD is so short handed and most times officers are busy responding to calls, he said. So there is no time to camp out at intersections and watch for traffic violations.

“Hopefully the goal with this Red Speed program will be a reduction in injury accidents at red light,” he said.

And Ramsey said it will happen.

He said it’s proven that in places where cameras are installed, there is a 45- to 50-percent decrease in accidents.

Also, rear end collisions were decreased by 10 percent and right angle crashes were decreased by at least 40 percent, he said.

Ramsey said Red Speed will start by installing two cameras and, depending on how well it works, will add subsequent cameras.

He said it will take around 60 days for the cameras to be installed and online.

Promotion of the cameras will take place at schools and throughout the city, and the placement of each device will be well-known, Ramsey said.

After a few months, a 24-hour surveillance camera will be added to the existing camera.

Middleton said this will help with downtown problems caused by bar crawlers.

“That will help us curtail late night noise and other things going on,” Middleton said.

Ramsey said having that kind of constant monitor will also prove beneficial in the advent of amber alerts and other crimes.