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Sunday, April 5, 2015

Red Light Cameras and red faces

Dim prospects for road safety program
After three years, contractor picked by CCA Party Councilors still can't figure out how to make its system work
By Will Collette
This is the camera covering the southbound lane of Route One at West
Beach Road (photo by Will Collette)
Whether you know it or not, Charlestown has two operational camera systems on Route One designed to catch motorists running the red lights at East Beach and West Beach Roads. Those four sets of cameras at the two intersections went “live” on January 6. The plan was to issue warnings for the first two weeks (until January 20) and then issue $85/no points tickets.

However, in the nearly three months between January 6 and April 1, not one single ticket has been issued to an offender and not a penny in fines has been collected.

As of April 1, according to Charlestown Police Chief Jeffrey Allen, 52 warnings have been issued to owners of vehicles filmed running a red light at one of those two intersections. These warnings carry no fine or points. In addition, that averages out to only one red-light violation roughly every 36 hours and that's way, way off of Sensys's predictions.

Chief Allen reports that the town’s contractor for the system, Florida-based Sensys USA, has had “some technical issues with the courts and RITT [RI Traffic Tribunal] approval” so no tickets are being issued.

I’ve covered this issue since it first arose after the tragic killing of Charlestown’s Colin Foote by a red-light runner at Route One and West Beach (site of one of the camera installations) in May 2010 and since May 2012 when the Town Council held a special meeting to consider the two bids it had received.

Cathy and I lived in the Washington DC area where there is an extensive network of traffic cameras. I support the use of the system because I believe it really saves lives by deterring dangerous conduct by irresponsible motorists.

Lots of Charlestown residents, particularly Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) supporters, opposed the red light cameras. One anonymous commenter on the official CCA Party website labelled them a communist conspiracy, an invasion of privacy and suggested armed insurrection. I think that person might have gone on to become our new state Representative, but I could be wrong.

"Due Diligence? I haven't got time for due diligence."
Despite the opposition from their own constituents, the Council, led by CCA leader Boss Tom Gentz, decided to go forward with the cameras and award the contract to Sensys USA. 

According to Gentz and then Councilor Dan Slattery, they liked Sensys because it was a Rhode Island-based company, even though it is not and even though I had done a due diligence package raising this and other issues and sent it to them.

Sensys is actually a Swedish company with its US affiliate in Florida (even though, on at least one occasion, they have denied any connection).

Sensys only registered their company to do business in Rhode Island as a foreign corporation in July 2012, two months after selling the Council members the story that they were a Rhode Island company and a whole month after the contract was approved by the Council. This is quite an interesting example of how our Town Council conducts its due diligence.

In my critique of Sensys, I noted their representative Brian Haskell got lost on his way to Charlestown to meet with the Council. Once he got here, he couldn’t get his Powerpoint presentation to work – and that this was a very bad sign, given the technology he was marketing to the town. He also seemed to have no idea about Charlestown road conditions (he thought we had eight-lane highways) and had never heard of Colin Foote.

Since I like the idea of red-light cameras and would like the system to succeed, I felt it was important to hire the right contractor. 

Sensys gave our Council plenty of signals even before we signed the contract that they were not not the right contractor. But our CCA Party boys on the Council have always danced to their own peculiar drummer and have never been particularly good at due diligence.

Once the three-year contract was signed, it was up to Sensys to work out the logistics to get the system installed. Sensys bears the entire risk for the cost of the program which is set by contract at $4,350 per camera per month or a monthly total of $17,400 for the four cameras. Sensys is paid solely from the fines collected through the system up to a point where the money then goes to Charlestown.

But to generate $17,400, at least 205 red-light tickets of $85 would have to actually get paid every month. It will probably take at least 400 “events” (photos showing a car running the light) per month to result in 205 paid tickets. Probably more since no actual ticket is issued until Charlestown Police review the image and give the go-ahead to issue the citation. Then some percentage of the tickets will be thrown out in traffic court and others will simply go unpaid.

Before the cameras went “live” on January 6, Sensys had told Chief Allen to expect ten to twelve “events” per unit per day – that's 40 to 48 total per day. But in reality, we are averaging only 0.6 per day. That's 18 per month, not the 400 or so it will take Sensys to generate its fee.

Even with the summer crowds, it’s hard to imagine red-light running will increase by almost a factor of twenty to meet Sensys’s monthly nut. That might be a moot point since there's no reason to believe Sensys will figure out all of its start-up problems by then.

Even though Sensys bears all the risk and collects nothing until the system was fully functional, these last three years have shown what a mistake it was for our Town Council to fall for the line that Sensys is a Rhode Island company and that they know what they’re doing.

Sensys’s failure to get the cameras up and running showed how little Sensys knew about Rhode Island’s bureaucracy. They ran into one problem after another and could not figure out how to work with RIDOT to resolve them. Now, according to Chief Allen, there is yet another problem that Sensys apparently did not anticipate and has not resolved and that’s this “technical” problem with the Rhode Island court system.

Well, there’s no risk to Charlestown if Sensys can’t find its own butt with a flashlight, but there’s also no income – to them or to the town.

There's only one positive thing to point to so far, According to Sensys's actual experience with the cameras in the first three months of 2015, there are far fewer drivers running Charlestown red lights than Sensys predicted, although even one is one too many.

No doubt a major reason for the lower than expected January through March numbers is the normal traffic drop-off when the summer people go away. Certainly all our winter storms curbed some people’s driving. 

Maybe there’s a little bit of a deterrent effect among those rare individuals who pay attention to such things as red light cameras. But there is a shocking difference between the actual number and the Sensys prediction.

I am inclined to believe that once again, Sensys just doesn’t understand Charlestown and may take a financial beating because of it.

Sensys signed their three-year contract with Charlestown in June 2012 which I had thought would mean the contract would come up for renewal – or termination – soon. However, Sensys says the contract started when the system went live. If I were them, I would re-think that position since I cannot imagine how this system will pay for itself as they anticipated.

But maybe they’re in too deep to pull out. After all, most of their tangible costs have gone into the installation. But how long can they continue with no revenue coming in? And how long will it be before the bean-counters at Sensys’s corporate headquarters figure out what a boondoggle this deal in Charlestown actually is?