ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) — An Albuquerque cop for almost 20 years now, Michael Miller can sniff out the difference between a lie and a damned lie. It’s the statistics he’s not so sure about.
“The crashes that are occurring have increased slightly,” the commander of the Albuquerque Police Department’s Traffic Unit said, his voice rising with uncertainty at each successive word.
Three full years after voters rejected the red light camera enforcement program at 20 city intersections, the impact of switching off the electronic eyes isn’t clear.
At a handful of the intersections the crash numbers have dropped — Paseo Del Norte and Coors Boulevard is on track to be down 50 percent — and the implication could be that drivers aren’t slamming on their brakes at a yellow light and rear-ending the car in front of them.
But at other crossings — Montgomery and Carlisle might rise 40 percent once all last year’s numbers are in — crashes have steadily climbed from the red light camera enforcement days.
Cmdr. Miller’s assessment of an overall slight increase is spot-on.
The red light cameras were phased out in December, 2011. There were 957 crashes that year, and annual totals have risen past 1,000 and are on track for just over 1,100 in 2014. The final quarter’s numbers from last year haven’t been tallied.
With automated ticket-writing no longer an option at Albuquerque crossings, police have focused on what Miller calls high-visibility enforcement. A group of motorcycle-riding officers posts up at busy intersections or stretches of road where drivers often speed and start handing out citations.
Last week, four APD officers parked their motorcycles at Parkway Drive NW and pointed their laser speed guns west down Ladera Drive. Within minutes, each officer had flagged down motorists for speeding — most going closer to 50 miles per hour than the 35 mph speed limit.
High-visibility patrols “can last anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks,” Miller said. “Unfortunately, we can’t be there all the time. We’ll work it. We’ll leave. And then it starts up again.”
Miller said intersections that used to be policed by cameras do get attention from the roughly dozen-member traffic unit, but no more than any other problem area. His goal is that drivers see his officers often enough to worry that a speed trap might be around the next bend.
“Just be visible,” he said. “Get out there.”
Miller’s theory lies at the other end of the law enforcement spectrum from red light cameras. The unobtrusive boxes sat about ten feet high on metal poles that blended in with the flotsam and jetsam of a typical urban intersection. Drivers who weren’t paying attention could get nabbed with what many cities considered a reasonable degree of accuracy.
With the silent guardians gone, though, many drivers don’t see a difference in how fellow motorists behave behind the wheel.
Amanda Clark’s daily commute to the Rebel Donut shop on the West Side sends her west along Paseo Del Norte through the intersection with Coors.
“I don’t think there’s any difference. Truth,” she said. “It doesn’t feel any different.”
Clark said drivers don’t seem to be any better or worse — maybe a little worse — than they have during the last few years. Everyone’s too distracted, she said, to pull into one of the turn lanes from Coors to Paseo in time to make a trip through the intersection the hassle-free cruise traffic engineers intended.
But crashes down 50 percent since the day the red light cameras got turned off? She’s surprised.
“It was pretty bad yesterday. There was an accident, construction, something.”
Across town at Montgomery and Carlisle, Dennis Johns sets up shop a couple times a week in the RV that he’s converted to Big John’s BBQ stand. Accidents, close calls, red light runners — he’s seen it all from his smokey perch at the northwest corner of the intersection.
“People are so fast on this street,” he said. And increasingly, he thinks they aren’t paying attention.
“This one lady was trying to cross the street and it seemed like they just didn’t want to stop for her,” he said.
Sitting next to Johns during a lull in the lunch rush, fellow barbecue purveyor Vince Pacely piped up: “They probably didn’t see her.”
“Oh, they seen her,” Johns said.
“Not if you’re texting and stuff.”
Johns nodded. Beyond him, a horn blared at a car turning left, well past the time the arrow turned from yellow to red.