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The million-dollar difference in red-light cameras

Photo of red light camera in Northwest D.C., Thursday, July 28, 2016. (ABC7 photo)

Point-Four seconds – it’s not a lot of time, but an ABC7 On Your Side Investigation found when it comes to red-light cameras in the Washington area, it's a multi-million-dollar difference.

If you stand outside the Department of Motor Vehicles in D.C. and talk to people who just paid a red-light camera ticket, you'll likely hear this.

"They're ripping us off. They're robbing us," said motorist Michael Massey of D.C.

Added Rogi Banks, "I'm smiling a lot because you have to laugh to keep from crying sometimes because the tickets are lot."

"Too expensive. Too much expensive,” stated cab driver Medhanie Fashay.

Unlike speed cameras, red-light cameras are found throughout the region. But the I-Team learned they're not all created equally. Aside from the varying fines – which range from $150 in D.C. to $75 in Maryland and $50 in the Commonwealth -Virginia drivers get a big advantage.

It's called a grace period and it works like this. When a traffic light turns red, Virginia drivers are given an additional .5 seconds to get through the intersection before the camera goes off. In D.C. and much of Maryland drivers get .1 second.

That difference doesn't seem like much. Until you look at it this way. A car traveling at 40 mph goes 24 feet in those .4 seconds. That is often the difference between getting a ticket and not.

And that means big money. The I-Team analyzed the numbers and found the average red-light camera in D.C. generated $218,000 last year. In Prince George's County, $230,000. In Arlington, just $83,000.

"I just don't think using red-light cameras as criminal penalties is a way to finance government,” said Fairfax County State Delegate Dave Albo.

Albo voted for Virginia's Red Light Camera bill that set the .5 second grace period, which Montgomery County Traffic Division Captain Thomas Didone told the I-Team, is the longest in the country. Didone says Virginia's law sends the wrong message and encourages drivers to speed up to beat the camera, which is dangerous. But Albo says Virginia found the right balance.

"We weren't looking to raising revenue,” added Albo. “We were looking to make the intersections more safe."

But, the amount of safety red-light cameras provide depends on which study you read. A recent report from the National Motorist Association shows red-light cameras cause an increase in rear-end collisions as motorists break to avoid tickets. But the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says they save lives by reducing side-impact crashes.

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