Red-light cameras raise questions

As City Council moves toward approving red-light cameras near City Hall, drivers have been raising questions and concerns.

"What if I run a yellow light and the light turns red while I am in the intersection?" asked Steve Moritz, 50, a business analyst from Somerdale.

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And what happens if a funeral procession is snapped rolling past a red-light camera? "Are you still going to be responsible for those tickets?" asked Marlo Freeman, 38, of Mount Airy.

Those questions arose after cameras at three intersections were activated this month. The city has 13 spots where the devices automatically photograph the vehicles of red-light runners.

On Tuesday, a Council committee approved two more cameras, at the North and South Broad Street intersections with the City Hall square.

Motorists who run red lights can trigger a $100 fine. Generally, the vehicle owner is mailed the citation, which imposes the fine but no points.

Chris Vogler, manager of red-light photo enforcement for the Philadelphia Parking Authority, answered some questions about how the Philadelphia program works:

 

What if a driver runs a yellow light?

The driver should not receive a ticket, Vogler said. The camera takes pictures only after the light has turned red and sensors indicate that a vehicle has crossed the wide white line, or "stop bar," painted on the road before the crosswalk.

A built-in delay of 0.3 of a second gives drivers a little grace period, Vogler said. Problems with the delay last year resulted in the authority's refunding or dismissing fines for more than 4,000 tickets.

What if the vehicle stops but has nosed into the intersection?

The cameras take two pictures, one after the other. The first is snapped 0.3 of a second after the light turns red if a vehicle is detected past the stop bar. The second picture shows whether the vehicle continued into the intersection. Examiners check the pictures, and if they see a vehicle in the intersection, they issue a citation. If the vehicle only nosed past the stop bar, the examiner might ignore the infraction.

"If a car's blocking the crosswalk, that's a hazard to a pedestrian," so the car owner could get a ticket, Vogler said. The program came about in large part because of concerns about pedestrian injuries and fatalities, he said.

What if a driver turns right on red?

Only one intersection where drivers are allowed to turn right on red, 34th Street and Grays Ferry Avenue, has red-light cameras. If the vehicle is seen turning in the photographs, no citation is issued. At the other 12 intersections, right turns on red have never been allowed, Vogler said.

Do funeral processions trigger tickets?

Most funeral directors are aware of the cameras and distribute signs that can be displayed at the back of vehicles, such as in the window or even over the license plate, Vogler said. If an examiner sees such a sign or can otherwise tell the vehicle is part of a funeral procession, no citation is issued.

Can this program spy on drivers or help catch crooks?

Examiners see license plates, but not drivers, because the photographs show only the backs of vehicles. The program began four years ago, but so far police have not requested to see photographs as part of a criminal investigation, Vogler said. Some jurisdictions have red-light cameras that shoot video instead of stills, but not Philadelphia.

What if the vehicle owner wasn't driving?

To beat the fine, a vehicle owner must mail in a hearing request and prove that he or she was not driving, Vogler said. One driver, for example, presented airline tickets to prove the family was out of town. Technically, owners are responsible only if they were behind the wheel. If the owner is exonerated, the actual driver is usually not pursued.

Even if the owner knowingly lets a friend or family member drive the vehicle, the owner is not obligated to pay the fine, Vogler said.

If, however, the vehicle is a rental or lease, the company is asked to supply copies of the contract. A violation is then sent to the person renting or leasing the car.

How do you contest a ticket?

Each violation notice includes a hearing request form. After it's filled out and mailed in the envelope that comes with the citation, the sender is informed by mail of a hearing at the Land Title Building, 100 S. Broad St.


Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.