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Speed Camera Sham

Yup, we fell for it

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The point of the speed cameras, the police department said, was to save lives. In retrospect, with traffic fatality maps spread across my desk, it's easy to see how public officials bought that argument, especially with the police department hurling statistics at them like the one about how one-third of the fatal crashes in Charlotte are caused by speed.

"Our goal is to slow people down on the most unsafe roads in the city of Charlotte in which people are losing their lives every week," Captain David Haggist told the Charlotte City Council in April, when he urged it to put its final stamp of approval on the cameras.

The police department's spiel would naturally lead one to conclude that these tragic fatal accidents caused by speed were actually occurring on the same "unsafe roads" where the speed cameras will be located.

As it turns out, that's not the case. Since 2003, there have been 16 speed-related fatalities in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) territory. But only one of the roads on which those fatalities occurred will have speed cameras. Of the 14 speed camera sites, only the one at Independence Boulevard is located on a road where a speed-related fatality occurred in the last year and a half, the period during which the police department began collecting speed-related fatality data. And oddly enough, although a third of the speed-related fatalities in CMPD territory occurred on the predominantly African-American west side of the county, not a single speed camera was placed there.

That's not to say that there weren't fatal wrecks where they're actually putting the cameras. There were. It's just that the vast majority weren't categorized as speed-related, a fact that got left out somewhere along the line.

Part of the problem here is a little-known trend that the police neglected to mention in their pro-speed camera press release, the one about how families are torn apart by car wrecks. That trend is that like elsewhere, speed-related wrecks tend to happen in a pretty random pattern across the county, one that can't really be impacted by putting speed cameras where speed-related wrecks have occurred.

Charlotte Department of Transportation Accident Section Manager Charlie Jones says the city picked the speed camera locations it did because they have high traffic volumes and high numbers of accidents.

"I think it (the speed cameras) will have an effect in those corridors on fatal crashes," said Jones. "We might prevent one. But there's really no way to measure that one since there haven't been any."

Again, that isn't exactly what police told public officials. Of course, I can't honestly say they lied about the cameras, either. When I went back and looked at meeting minutes and articles on the topic, it was uncanny how carefully police representatives chose their words. They talked a lot about traffic deaths, traffic accidents, cameras, speed and unsafe roads. But they never actually specified what direct relation the five topics bore to each other, and in the process, a lot of important information about what speed cameras could or could not accomplish was, shall we say, inadvertently omitted.

None of this, of course, explains the missing West Side cameras.

A 2004 accident map shows larger concentrations of accidents in Beatties Ford, Rozzelles Ferry, Nations Ford and Freedom Road areas than there are on Providence Road. Yet Providence got a camera and the other roads didn't.

With only a few exceptions, like racially mixed areas on Central Avenue and Tryon Street, the bulk of the cameras are going in affluent white areas where people weren't likely to die in speed related crashes anyway. Jones says that's because with the exception of Wilkinson Boulevard, which won't have a speed camera, most of the roads on the West Side don't have as much traffic volume as W.T. Harris and other high-traffic spots where the cameras wound up. (It's worth noting that both Wilkinson Boulevard and Nations Ford Road have been the site of speed-related deaths in the last 16 months, while Providence hasn't.)

Of course, while Jones and the folks at the Charlotte Department of Transportation drew up the list of the recommended spots for the cameras -- which the department no longer has a copy of, he says -- it's important to note that they didn't actually pick them. That job was done not by traffic engineers, but by state legislators, who chopped out the camera locations they didn't like for reasons that aren't known.

I'm sure that Peek Traffic, which will be raking in $39 from each $50 citation speeders will pay -- and bearing most of the cost of providing the cameras -- wasn't as eager to put speed cameras in areas of town with less traffic that would be, shall we say, less profitable. And besides, if private corporations aren't rolling in dough, they might lose interest in taking over policing functions taxpayers pay the city to do.

What any of this has to do with saving lives, I don't know.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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