Nearly all accident rates at the eight Bakersfield intersections with red light cameras have decreased dramatically since Redflex Traffic Systems began photographing and citing violators, though some residents wonder if cameras or drivers deserve the credit.
New accident statistics compiled in December by the Traffic Engineering division of the Public Works Department and based on Bakersfield Police Department collision reports through Sept. 30 show accidents declining in almost all cases. In 11 of 16 instances surveyed, accidents dropped from double to single digits.
The rate of more deadly primary accidents, defined as "right-of-way violations such as broadsides and head-ons," declined on yearly averages ranging from 47 to 73 percent, depending on the intersection.
Primary accidents at California Avenue and Oak Street posted the largest drop. During the seven years before cameras went in on Nov. 10, 2004, the intersection saw an average of 16.8 primary accidents per year. From November 2004 through Sept. 30 of this year, primary accidents declined to an average of 4.5 per year -- a 73.2 percent decrease.
Less-deadly secondary accidents, defined as "mainly rear-end and sideswipe-type accidents" declined on an average ranging from 2 to 64 percent depending on location -- with two exceptions.
At Bernard and Oswell streets in northeast Bakersfield, secondary collisions rose more than 84 percent, and at Coffee Road and Truxtun Avenue in the southwest, they rose more than 15 percent.
Critics of red light camera systems have often used secondary accident increases as proof that when confronted with cameras, motorists slam on their brakes causing more rear-end collisions.
But Bakersfield Police Department Sgt. Joe Grubbs said these increases were similar to anomalies, pointing out that because the actual numbers of average yearly accidents at the intersections remained small, even small increases would yield huge percentage changes.
"That one is obviously pretty high. It's 1.9, so it doesn't take a lot more to make a huge increase," Grubbs said in reference to the 84 percent increase, which reflects an increase from 1.9 to 3.5 average yearly accidents. "It's just kind of a numbers game to some degree, but overall it's showing that these accidents are going down."
Police Chief Greg Williamson said that the city's five-year contract with Redflex, which runs through July with the option of two two-year extensions, has yielded the results officials hoped for.
"I think the reductions in all of those, in the major injury accidents, are close to or exceeding 50 percent, which is encouraging because that's the purpose of the program," Williamson said.
City Manager Alan Tandy agreed.
"There's a recognition that people may slam on their brakes to avoid running the red light and there might be less of an impact on secondary collisions, more minor ones," Tandy said. "The primary collisions are the main goal."
A Redflex spokeswoman called the latest results "promising" and said they are similar to results from others of the around 250 municipalities with Redflex contracts nationwide.
"Over time, drivers modify their behavior at photo-enforced intersections, they slow down and stop on red, thereby making the intersection safer for drivers, pedestrians and bikers," said Jody Ryan, the company's director of communications, in a statement.
The red light cameras cost Bakersfield $37,600 per month. They have generated a $10.49 profit per ticket paid, over the duration of the Redflex contract, but a city survey of tickets paid from February 2008 through May 2013 found that only 61 percent of violators actually paid their tickets.
Grubbs has said that while the cameras typically photograph around 40 potential violators on weekdays, and fewer on weekends, the cameras do not make money for the city every month. However, he and other city officials have said that safety, not profit, is the cameras' purpose.
Either way, a so-called "cost neutrality" clause specifies that the city will never have to pay Redflex more than it receives in payment for tickets.
But a motorist interviewed at the Bernard-Oswell intersection said being watched by Arizona-based Redflex hasn't changed her behavior or that of family members who have gotten red light tickets.
"They just pay the ticket and keep on doing it," said resident Dolores Grijalva. "It's just something you're not going to stop. Like drunken driving."
Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell, whose district includes three intersections with cameras, questions whether the cameras have motivated motorists to become better drivers or simply take other routes.
"Did they decrease the actual traffic on those streets by making other routes more favorable?" Maxwell asked. "The percentages based on total numbers of accidents sometimes are not a fair evaluation of those streets. I'd be more impressed if they said the traffic volume of those streets has increased."
That's exactly what has happened as Bakersfield's population has grown from 246,889 in 2000 to 359,221 in 2013, according to city Traffic Engineer John Ussery, who complied the latest accident statistics.
"The traffic volumes keep going up and the accidents keep going down. It's not due to a decline in volume, it's due to people not wanting to get in an accident," Ussery said, adding that, "Every time a major collision is avoided, especially if it's a broadside or a head-on, somebody was not injured or somebody was not killed."
Ward 7 Councilman Russell Johnson said he has had skeptical thoughts about the city's red light camera system and whether intruding on the public's right to privacy is the right thing to do, but that its performance seems to justify the means.
"You would read these articles in other jurisdictions, and they were paying all this money for this program and there was no tangible data to show it was doing anything. Yet every time I looked into it here, the data was saying, 'No we're not doling out large sums of money, and we're starting to see some benefit'," Johnson said. "I think the data speaks for itself at this point."
The cameras themselves speak volumes to motorist Ron Cook, who said he drives through the Bernard-Oswell intersection regularly for work and is always careful.
"This is the only one I go through on a regular basis, and I definitely catch myself sometimes," Cook said. "It definitely makes you stop and think for a second."