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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Wilmington has no plans to ditch its red light camera program, now the last in the state 

A yellow sign with an image of a traffic signal above another sign with the words 'photo enforced.' In the background, a suburban neighborhood, trees, and a cloudy sky.
Benjamin Schachtman
A sign for the red light camera installation at Market and 23rd streets in Wilmington.

Over the years, a constellation of issues — including financial, legal, and engineering problems — whittled the number of red light camera programs in the state down to just a handful. Now, as Raleigh sunsets its program, Wilmington is the last municipality in North Carolina with enforcement cameras. City staff hasn’t had any recent conversations about changing that, even though the program loses money and its efficacy is, at best, a mixed bag.

Red light cameras have a long and contentious history that predates Wilmington’s own history with them.

Over a hundred years ago, the Massachusetts Supreme Court heard a challenge to a speed camera (a close relative of the red light camera), and over the years enforcement cameras have been challenged on constitutional, regulatory, and engineering grounds. There’s also a rich history of bribery and other corruption associated with the companies that run red light programs and the elected officials who approve them.

Red light cameras are illegal in nearly two dozen states, North Carolina — one of ten states that explicitly authorizes them — passed legislation in 2001 to allow them in a few areas. The list eventually grew to 19 cities and towns, and any municipality in Union County, but by early 2022 only four still had programs running: Fayetteville, Greenville, Raleigh, and Wilmington.

In late 2022, Greenville shuttered its program after it was found unconstitutional. Around the same time, facing similar legal challenges, the vendor for Fayetteville’s red light camera system declined to renew its contract, effectively ending the city’s program.

Last month, Raleigh’s city manager report included a memo from staff, recommending against renewing the city’s program. The city’s traffic engineer, Jed Niffenegger, laid out the main reasons for shutting down the city’s program, which had been running since 2003.

“Support for RLC programs has eroded, and there have been several draft legislative bills introduced at the NC General Assembly that proposed further regulation on the way RLC programs can operate and issue citations. Some bills have proposed substantial changes to operational requirements that could prevent a RLC program from issuing enough citations to recover program operating costs. RLC programs have also come under significant pressure of potential third-party litigation. Most red-light camera programs in North Carolina, including the first program in Charlotte, Cary’s program, and most recently Greenville’s program have all been shuttered in part due to third party litigation,” Niffenegger wrote.

That legislation, including House Bill 198, is still apparently in committee, but contains recommendations from NCDOT that would change some of the timing involved in red light cameras, reducing the number of people who would be considered to have ‘run’ the lights, and thus the number of citations (and profitability).

But pending changes to state law were only a “very minor” consideration, according to Sean Driskill, who manages Raleigh’s Vision Zero program, which aims to reduce and ultimately eliminate traffic injuries and fatalities. Driskill told WHQR a more serious concern was that while Raleigh’s red light cameras did reduce some collisions it increased others.

“The red light camera helps address angle crashes, but has a tendency to increase rear-end collisions. And with our Vision Zero initiative, we don't really want to trade one crash for another. We'd rather just make permanent structural improvements at these intersections and many other intersections across the city that have similar issues. They'll have a lasting and lasting impact into the future,” Driskill said.

The city is already planning how it can shift resources away from the red light camera program and, in general, is focusing on things like high visibility signals and signs, making system-wide adjustments to signal timings, and pedestrian crossing infrastructure.

Driskill said those things were more aligned with the Vision Zero program, and would have lasting impact and benefit to the city and a wider range of intersection locations.

That leaves Wilmington as the last city standing. And, even though the city’s red light program has faced lawsuits, financial losses, and as Port City Daily reported last year, a mediocre track record on crash reduction.

The program has even run afoul of the state’s engineering oversight boardbecause the city's red light camera installations weren't overseen by an engineer licensed in North Carolina. The city's vendor, American Traffic Solutions, now Verra Mobility, did eventually correct the situation — but only after the city initially denied there was any problem and the state board had to investigate and weigh in.

Despite these issues, a city spokesperson said there have been no discussions about taking down the red light cameras here. At a city council agenda meeting last summer, city manager Tony Caudle told council that both the Wilmington Police Department and the city's traffic engineering department had requested the city continue the program.

Below: Raleigh City Manager's report for March 2024.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.