The number of collisions at the six Kent intersections with red-light cameras more than doubled in 2022 from 2021.
In 2022, there were 137 crashes at the intersections compared to 56 in 2021, an increase of 144.6%, according to Kent Police statistics. There were 33,934 red-light infractions in 2022 compared to 32,491 in 2021, a hike of 4.4%.
“While our data can tell us what is happening, it can’t answer the question as to why,” Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla said in an email in response to Kent Reporter questions about the high increase in collisions despite the cameras. “The short answer to your question is we don’t know why there is an increase.”
Padilla offered several possibilities for the higher numbers.
“I can tell you that collisions are up significantly in many areas in the state,” Padilla said. “This year, the Washington Department of Traffic Safety reported that 750 people (nine in Kent) were killed in traffic collisions in 2022 (up from 675 in 2021 and 574 in 2020). That represents the highest number of fatal collisions (in the state) in 30 years. The same data also confirms that a good amount of the fatal collisions involved speed, intoxication, or both.”
The chief said the state’s stricter pursuit laws could play a role.
“The first common sense thing that comes to mind is the restriction on law enforcement to pursue for traffic crimes or violations like reckless driving, illegal street racing, running red lights, etc.,” Padilla said. “Traffic violators and criminal offenders do not pull over for police on a daily basis. They simply drive away. Why? Because they can.
“The only people being given tickets in Washington are the law-abiding community members who pull over and do the right thing. I believe that as long as traffic violators don’t need to be concerned about being stopped and given a ticket for speeding or running a red light, the more traffic collisions we will see.”
Padilla would like patrol officers to have more options.
“I want to be clear that I am not advocating for more police pursuits, and I want to recognize that our state legislators made solid progress during this last legislative session to address this issue, but there is still work that needs to be done to strike a better balance of restrictions on pursuits and the ability for police to apprehend offenders,” he said.
The chief said a lack of visible law enforcement presence, due to staffing shortages, could be another factor. Padilla has 166 officers, the most allowed under the city budget. But he has said numerous times the city of nearly 135,000 needs about 195 officers to properly cover it.
“Our officers spend most of their time going from one 911 call to the next 911 call when they should be in our parks, neighborhoods, community gathering spaces, business districts, etc.,” he said. “While we will not be able to eliminate crime, with more officers and the personnel to support them, we can certainly have a bigger positive impact than we are currently.”
Padilla named the pandemic as another possible reason for more crashes.
“We don’t fully know what the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic had on the change in driving behavior, but it seems reasonable to think that it is a contributing factor,” he said.
More cameras coming
Kent Police recently announced that red-light cameras were operational at two additional intersections with warnings given out from June 15 until July 15. The $136 tickets will be issued starting July 16. Kent officers review photos and videos to determine whether to issue a ticket.
The City Council in September 2022 approved the addition of red-light cameras at six more intersections in 2023. The cameras at the intersection of 116th Avenue SE and SE 240th Street and the intersection of 68th Avenue South and South 228th Street are the first two intersections to be activated so far this year.
The activation dates have yet to be determined at the intersections of SE 208th Street and 108th Avenue SE; West Meeker Street and Washington Avenue North; Kent-Kangley Road and 116th Avenue SE; and South 212th Street and 68th Avenue South. The intersections were chosen based on the number of collisions at each.
City leaders say they support the program because it helps make intersections safer and brings in revenue to pay for the body-worn cameras used by Kent Police officers.
Kent started its red-light camera program in 2019. There were 164 collisions at the six intersections with cameras in 2019. That dropped to 122 in 2020 and to 56 in 2021.
“Our data indicates that while violations continue to be high, collisions have seen a modest decrease,” Padilla said in September 2022 prior to the council’s decision to add six more intersections with cameras in 2023. “While it would be great if we had zero violations, the fact that there are less collisions, means there is less risk of injury or death. Those are outcomes we strongly support.”
The city installed cameras midway through 2019 at the intersections with the most collisions in response to complaints from residents about drivers running red lights.
Despite the red-light cameras, drivers continue to run red lights. At the current six intersections, the number of running red-light tickets went up to 33,924 in 2022 from 32,491 in 2021 and 29,576 in 2020, according to police documents.
“The cameras have done their job for the most part and prior to last year (2022), collisions have decreased slightly,” Padilla said in his recent email. “We will continue to assess the effectiveness of the cameras.”
Kent already has cameras at the intersections of 104th Avenue SE and SE 240th Street; 104th Avenue SE and SE 256th Street; 84th Avenue S. and S. 212th Street; Central Avenue N. and E. James Street; Central Avenue N. and E. Smith Street; and Kent Des Moines Road and Pacific Highway S.
Crashes went up at all of those intersections in 2022 from 2021, with the largest increase at 104th Avenue SE and SE 240th Street, which had 38 collisions in 2022 compared to 9 in 2021.
“I hate to point out the obvious, but we are seeing an increase in the number of infractions issued because more people are not abiding by the law and they are running red lights,” Padilla said about the large increase at 104th Avenue SE and SE 240th Street.
Could it be that the cameras are leading to more collisions, possibly with drivers stopping suddenly or speeding up to beat the red light?
“I do want to note that we do not believe the cameras themselves are contributing to the higher rate of collisions, but I will ask our team to double check,” Padilla said.
Ticket revenue up
The council admitted when it agreed last fall to add more red-light cameras that revenue played a role in the decision.
In 2022, tickets from the red-light cameras brought in revenue of $2.7 million, according to Paula Painter, city finance director. The program also produced $2.7 million in revenue in 2021 and $2.45 million in 2020. The program has brought in $1 million through May of this year.
The funds are used to pay for the cost of the red-light program to Arizona-based Verra Mobility. The council last year extended the contract with Verra Mobility another five years starting May 31, 2023 through May 30, 2028 to add the additional red-light cameras.
The revenue figures are after the annual payments to Verra Mobility to run the program, which is about $651,000 per year for the 11 cameras at the current six intersections. The costs cover camera installation and maintenance along with the processing and mailing of infractions. The annual cost will jump to about $1.2 million once camera are activated at all of the six additional intersections.
Revenue from the program is used to pay for body-worn cameras by officers. The city has a five-year contract with Arizona-based Axon for the body-worn cameras that expires in September 2024. The council extended that contract through September 2029 in an amount not to exceed $4.5 million for the duration of the contract, according to city documents.
“Looking back from 2019 through 2022, on average, the city has paid $479,000 per year for the contract and related supplies,” Painter said in an email about the body-worn camera program.
Additional funds from the red-light camera program can be used for other public safety functions such as personnel, programs, services and equipment related to the enforcement and processing of traffic and criminal laws within the city, Painter said.
The red-light camera fund balance at the end of 2022 was $1.39 million, Painter said. In 2023, the red-light camera fund has a budget of $3.27 million in which $560,967 has been spent through May.