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San Diegans have lived with red-light cameras for more than a decade but the infamous enforcement tools’ days might be numbered.

The San Diego City Council is poised to review crash data or potential contracts with traffic cameras early next year, and incoming Mayor Bob Filner has already shared his disapproval of the city’s program. That could translate into San Diego following in the footsteps of Los Angeles and Houston, two cities that took down their cameras last year.

So what would happen if the city’s 15 red-light cameras go dark?

Would motorists revert to bad behavior or would roads actually be safer? Would the city lose out on much money?

We broke down some of the latest research and a past study of the city’s red-light program, and took a look at the cash the city collects via photo enforcement.

U-T San Diego columnist Matthew T. Hall recently mentioned research the city did for a 2002 report in a column arguing the cameras should come down:

In 2002, an audit found that accidents actually increased at red-light camera intersections in the city. Accidents caused by motorists running a red light dropped, but rear-end collisions rose.

That 10-year-old report from consultant PB Farradyne shows the overall increase in crashes was minimal. Before the cameras went up, the 15 intersections that are now monitored saw an average of 2.92 accidents annually. That number spiked to 2.95 annually with the cameras.

Still, the city-commissioned report, which didn’t include raw numbers, noted that rear-end crashes increased by 140 percent after cameras were added.

It’s unclear whether that trend has changed in the last decade.

San Diego transportation spokesman Bill Harris said the city is pulling updated crash statistics ahead of a yet-to-be-scheduled council review. He couldn’t immediately provide new numbers.

There’s plenty of national research to consider, though.

Researchers at Old Dominion University in Virginia recently released research on drivers’ reactions after cameras were temporarily shut off in the state due to the state legislature’s inaction.

The Atlantic Cities wrote about the study, which concluded that many drivers behaved badly when the cameras went dark:

What intrigued (and unsettled) the researchers was how quickly drivers reverted to red-light running form. In the immediate aftermath of the law’s expiration, the risk of someone running a red light at an intersection was three times higher than it had been when the cameras were on. A year later it was four times higher, with all risk reductions having been erased.

Last year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety focused on 14 U.S. cities with red-light cameras and another 48 cities without them.

Four years of data revealed that fatal “red-light running” crashes dropped 35 percent compared with a 14 percent decrease in the cities without the cameras.

According to the report:

That adds up to 74 fewer fatal red light running crashes or, given the average number of fatalities per red light running crash, approximately 83 lives saved.

The Insurance Institute report acknowledged other research has linked the cameras to increases in rear-end crashes but said studies show those accidents tend to be less deadly than T-bone crashes or other red light-running accidents.

A 2011 Texas Transportation Institute study sheds more light on the rear-end crash phenomenon.

The report, which reviewed accident reports from 275 camera-monitored locations in Texas, found that while rear-end crashes appeared to spike at many of the recorded intersections they weren’t directly linked to a driver braking to avoid a ticket.

Here’s an excerpt:

In those cases where a greater number of rear-end collisions occurred, the majority were found to be the result of the “following” driver traveling to closely to the lead unit or failing to control speed. Evidence suggests that rear-end crashes are not the result of the lead unit braking hard to avoid running a red signal and being struck from the rear.

A 2005 Federal Highway Administration-commissioned study also found that rear-end crashes increased but more accidents were prevented with the cameras.

Still, the issue remains contentious. Numerous cities have shut off their cameras due to enforcement issues or a lack of clear success.

The fees collected from the red-light citations have often come up in discussions about whether the cameras should come down.

They’re certainly part of the local debate. Some San Diegans, including Filner, have expressed concern with the state-mandated $490 fines.

“Right now, the program costs too much in terms of fines, gives too much money to the private contractor and does not serve as a safety and education program, but as a program to make money for the city,” Filner told U-T San Diego last month.

So what sort of cash is the city bringing in through the red-light camera program?

Not as much as you might think.

A November 2011 report says the city collected about $1.9 million from July 2010 through June 2011 but spent $1.7 million on enforcement costs, which included a roughly $727,000 payment to vendor American Traffic Systems Inc.

That left San Diego with just an extra $212,957 for its day-to-day budget — not much when you consider that the city’s general operating fund is a little more than $1 billion.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the city’s spending on enforcement costs. The city spent $1.7 million to administer the program, a total that included its payment to vendor American Traffic Systems Inc.

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa.halverstadt@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0528.

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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