Caught red handed: Wilmington red-light cameras approved through fall 2020

Updated: Jan. 22, 2020 at 3:47 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Red-light cameras have been snapping photos of drivers zooming through Wilmington intersections for two decades now and they aren’t expected to stop any time soon.

Despite the ongoing debate about the cameras, the city voted unanimously in September to continue their red-light camera contract with American Traffic Solutions (ATS) through fall 2020.

According to the city of Wilmington, the SafeLight Program has dramatically reduced the number of intersection collisions and continues to touch thousands of drivers a year; almost 29,000 citations were issued in 2019.

While the majority of the people pay the ticket mailed out to them, others question the legality of such cameras and believe there’s no consequences if you don’t pay the fine.

Wilmington has 13 red light cameras across the city
Wilmington has 13 red light cameras across the city(City of Wilmington)

Red-light cameras were implemented in the city in 2000. As it stands, there are 13 cameras positioned at busy intersections in the city.

SafeLight cameras run 24 hours a day. When they detect a violation, the camera records the date, time, speed of the vehicle, the time elapsed since the beginning of the red signal and takes a photo of the car showing the violation.

The footage is reviewed by workers at American Traffic Solutions and sent along to the Wilmington traffic safety department where the footage is reviewed again by a person who works under the city’s red-light safety program.

If it passes those hurdles, the car’s registered owner is mailed a $50 infraction. The fee grows to $100 if it’s not paid in 30 days. The owner can dispute the violation or transfer the liability if someone else was driving the car at the time.

Many states have banned red-light cameras, but they’re legal in North Carolina under §160A-300.1 and still operating in Raleigh, Fayetteville, and Greenville.

The city must follow rules though, like posting a sign at the intersection notifying people that cameras are in use.

In 2018, Wilmington’s system was called into question as to whether or not the cameras were in line with state laws.

The North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors handed down a ruling that the plans for the poles the cameras were mounted on had not been sealed by a licensed engineer.

The ruling, however, makes it clear the board doesn’t have the power to stop the company from operating. A court of law would have to determine if any laws were broken and impose any penalties.

The city has instructed ATS to secure a firm or individual licensed to practice in North Carolina to review the plans for the designs of the poles and ensure all engineering related aspects of the poles meet the required engineering standards, according to city Spokesperson Malissa Talbert. Thirteen months after the ruling, the violation still hasn’t been remedied.

The city, however, maintains the ruling doesn’t affect their ability to use the cameras and collect the penalty fees the cameras generate.

“The issue of whether there are sealed plans for the design of the pole does not call the effectiveness of the camera system itself into question. There is no issue with the ability of the system to capture vehicles entering an intersection on red, and therefore no impact to the city’s ability to use the cameras or collect penalties for violations,” Talbert said in a statement.

The legal ramifications of the ruling were discussed briefly at a Wilmington City Council meeting on September 17, 2019.

Before the council took a vote on extending the contract another year with ATS, a resident brought up several legal concerns with the red light cameras. The speaker alleged American Traffic Solutions bribed an engineer to certify plans in Greenville, North Carolina after-the-fact and that the engineer was fined by the Board of Engineers for his actions. The speaker also mentioned there is an ongoing class-action lawsuit against the City of Greenville for its part in implementing uncertified work by a firm not licensed to practice engineering.

When council moved to discuss extending the contract with ATS, city councilman Clifford Barnette directly asked if the allegations the speaker brought up were true and if the city was in danger of losing a case if a lawsuit was filed.

“We’re not in a position that we would lose a lawsuit because you’ve hired engineers to correct what they were not able to do...?” Barnette tried to clarify with traffic officials.

City traffic engineer Don Bennett explained the city wasn’t hiring anyone to fix the issue with the poles and it was the responsibility of ATS to secure an engineer that can provide plans to the board that can meet their satisfaction, but they had not completed that process.

“When it comes to the probability of the city winning or losing a lawsuit based upon the information provided tonight, I would have to defer to the city attorney,” Don Bennett added.

“In this particular case, we have a vendor that is very good at running the red light camera system- so much so that folks who are caught by it are unhappy with it. What [ATS] didn’t do is take the time to have an engineer put a seal on their design plan for basically the pole foundations that don’t necessarily affect how the camera operates," said City Attorney John D Joye. "They have a reasonable opportunity to cure, meaning they have to have an engineering firm review the plans, review the structures, making sure everything is the way it should be and when that is done and it’s been sealed, it will be cured. We are doing what we should under the contract in allowing them that. I will tell you that if they do not have this completed before the next extension, I will not recommend that extension and we made them very aware of that.”

The next speakers praised the effectiveness of the cameras in making the city safer and the item passed unanimously.

There are entire websites devoted to answering the question of whether or not people have to pay red light camera citations.

The Wilmington SafeLight Program is not run by the police department, but that doesn’t mean you can skirt the fee.

Thinking of trashing the citation? You’ll get another notice in the mail and the cost of the ticket will double.

Last year, nearly 10 percent of people paid the ticket on second notice, including the additional $50 late fee.

If they go unpaid, it’s marked down as unpaid debt. The city has and will collect the fees by garnishing your state tax returns, or in some cases, pursuing the case in small claims court.

While the civil infraction will not show up on your driving record, impact your insurance or add points on your license, if the city pursues the unpaid fees, the collection effort may show up in on your credit report.

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