The city of Yonkers has more than 7.8 million reasons to like red light cameras.
That's how much money the city has taken in the two years since it began issuing tickets to traffic scofflaws using the controversial cameras, which now number 56, located at 24 intersections across Westchester County's largest city.
From October 2010 to October 2012, at least 176,431 red light camera tickets were issued to motorists, according to figures from the city's Parking Violation Bureau. At least 139,136 have been paid to date -- a nearly 80 percent collection rate -- the bureau says.
The citations, at $50 a piece, have generated more than $7.8 million for the city. Roughly $3 million of that has been paid to American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona-based company that operates the cameras under contract with the city.
"To the extent that the cameras are making the city a safer place, it's a good thing," said Yonkers City Council President Chuck Lesnick. "That said, the revenue is nice and we need it because of the budget shortfalls we have been facing."
Overall, the number of red light camera tickets appears to be on the decline in 2012. City officials say motorists are becoming more aware of the cameras and not running red lights as frequently.
"Since the installation of the red light cameras three years ago, we've seen a change in driver behavior at certain red light intersections," Mayor Mike Spano said. "We will continue to examine and assess the data so we can best determine the effectiveness of the program. Ultimately, this is about making Yonkers safer."
Whether the cameras are actually improving public safety isn't completely clear. Yonkers officials said they could not provide data on the number of crashes at intersections where the cameras have been installed.
Yonkers is under a four-year contract with American Traffic Solutions to maintain the red light cameras, together with an online video monitoring system. In return, the company gets a portion of the revenue, in most cases $27 per ticket. The system provides photographs and video of a vehicle and its license plate number. The parking bureau reviews the evidence and decides whether it warrants a ticket.
Anita Morck, director of the city's Violation Bureau, said the collection methods are similar to those used with parking tickets except the city doesn't suspend vehicle registrations for nonpayment. Alleged violators are given the opportunity to challenge a citation in traffic court. If they don't pay up after three warnings, their vehicle can be booted or towed.
Kate Coulson, a representative for American Traffic Solutions, said the low rate of recidivism -- on average about 10 percent, according to the company's data -- indicates drivers are getting the message authorities are sending through red light cameras.
"Typically, once someone gets a red light camera ticket they don't go on to get a second ticket," she said.
Proponents of the high-speed surveillance equipment -- used in 14 states nationwide -- say it has been shown to reduce red light violations and crashes at busy intersections. But the technology has drawn its share of critics, including libertarian groups who say the real purpose of the cameras is to fleece taxpayers.
In New York City -- which took in more than $235 million from 150 red light cameras in the past five years -- a group of ticketed motorists has filed a class-action suit against the city, alleging fraud.
Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is fighting to install more red light cameras.
Earlier in 2012, the Los Angeles Police Commission ended its contract with American Traffic Solutions. Public criticism of the program and the decision by the Los Angeles Superior Court to stop enforcing collections had undermined the program in Los Angeles.
There's been no class action lawsuits in Yonkers to date, but that doesn't mean people are pleased with the city's red light camera program. Eric Schoen, a lifelong Yonkers resident, has created an online petition calling on the city to install signage at the intersections where the cameras are located, warning motorists that the traffic control devises are in use, which is required in other states that use them. So far, about 50 people have signed his petition.
"Yonkers should immediately join cities across the nation and put signage at red light camera locations alerting motorists to their existence," Schoen said.
The National Motorists Association -- the group describes itself as an advocacy group working on behalf of motorists -- lists 10 objections to red light cameras, ranging from the lack of witnesses to the failure to identify the vehicle's driver.
Running of red lights killed 8,845 people in the United States from 2000 to 2009 -- that's one in 10 intersection fatalities, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Nearly two-thirds of those killed in the U.S. by red light runners in 2009 were occupants of other vehicles, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.