There are only six intersections in town with cameras to record people who run red lights.

And the proposal before city council Thursday night was to extend for only 101 days a contract for an Arizona company to maintain the camera system.

Yet, the issue sparked more heat (yet respectful) than anything else on the council  agenda.

Council members voted 5-1 to extend the contract with Automaed Traffic Solutons to manage the until next March 10th.

But there was a lot of high drama before the vote was taken. Without the vote, the contract would have expired on Nov. 30th.

Because the technology is changing so fast the council decided originally not to buy the equipment outright but to hire a company to provide the cameras and maintain them.

Two bucks in the forest

Councilman Madelyn Scales Harris was ill and missed the meeting. It marked one of the few times the council hasn’t voted as a unit on something.

The lone no vote was cast by councilman Eddie Smotherman, who aggressively questioned the value of the cameras. The discussion between Smotherman and Police Chief Glenn Chrisman was respectful at all times,. but it also seemed like two strong bucks clashing in a forest.

Smotherman went out of his way to praise the work of the department. He added that while it may seem like he is beating up on the chief every time this issue comes up, there is nothing personal between the two men. Smotherman always argues well and with passion, but the chief stood his ground and gave back as much as he got.

Council authorizes full five-year run for contract

The contract dates originally from March 11 of 2011 and provides for a maximum  run of five years. It has a series of renewal options that allow the deal to run as late as March 11, of 2016,, or the full five years.  After the contract expires next March there will be another debate over the cameras and what to do about a possible new contract. We will no doubt hear from Smotheman again at that time.

Chief Chrisman presented a report on crash statistics to support his claim that the cameras have made the intersections safer. And he added that the cameras have freed up officers for other, even more important duties elsewhere.

Disturbing recent trend

But his argument was weakened somewhat by recent trends. While crashes are down sharply from 2007-08, there has been a mysterious rise of accidents in the 2014-15 period from the same period the year before.

Chrisman noted that in 2007-08 there were 1,692 crashes at 122 signalized city intersections. In the 2014-15 period, there were 1064 crashes or about 3% fewer.

Side crashes which have the greatest potential for property damage and loss of life, dropped from 71 in 2007-08 to 28 last year.

The chief said he can’t explain the rise in crashes in 2014-15 from the prior year. He noted that the number of signalized intersections rose from 122 in 2007-08 to149 and that crashes everywhere in the city were up by about 6% in 2014-15  from a year earlier.

To him,  the rise in the latest period is an anomaly, and the important thing is the overall drop in crashes from the 2007-08 base year.

A convenient anomaly?

Councilman Smotherman jumped on the latest rise to suggest the cameras aren’t doing any good, or if they were producing results in the past they aren’t any  more. He complained that the chief uses data to support his argument, but when the statistics run the other way he calls it an anomaly.

“Is there any way you can prove a life was saved because a camera was installed at a signalized intersection”,  he asked the chief.

Chrisman replied that the overall crash data support his argument that something has happened to make people drive more carefully.

Is it the cameras or something else?

“I agree that something has happened,” Smotherman shot back. “When gas prices were high and rising, the number of people driving on the roads went down. And so did the number of accidents at our intersections. About a year and a half ago, gas prices stared dropping dramatically, and when that happened more people started traveling. I would contend that this graph (on crashes) you’re  showing us relates more to gas prices than …  (to traffic cameras)”

Shop locally, please

The chief said that in the most recent year, the contract generated $943,727 in revenue, compared to the $801,274 Murfreesbro paid the company.

Smothrman argued that it is wrong to spend almost $1 million a year and have all but about $150,000 of it leave the local economy and go to a company in Arizona. He said it is inconsistent to urge people to shop locally if the council doesn’t do the same.

Mayor McFarland responded that city money leaves Murfreesbro daily for other states, adding that the city is obligated to call for bids and take the lowest bid on contracts. He noted that the latest fire truck the city has bought came from Wiasconsin and that there is no company in Tennessee that provides and maintains traffic signal cameras.

LaLance believes the cameras do change behavior

Councilman Rick LaLance agreed with Smotherman that if the question is whether cameras physically stop cars from running red lights the answer would have to be no. But then speed guns don’t physically slow cars down either. But they do change behavor, causing people to hit the brakes if they see an officer and think he might be checking speeds.

The six intersections in town with cameras are:

  • South Church at Middle Tennessee Boulevard
  • Memorial at Northfield Boulevard
  • Rutherford Boulevard at John Bragg Highway
  • Old Fort Parkway at Thompson Lane
  • Southeast Broad at Church Street
  • Northwest Broad at Northfield Boulevard

The ironic thing is this is the second time I have come home from a council meeting and noticed a flash of light when I stopped at the Church St and Middle Tennessee intersection. Maybe the nose of my car had crossed the line by an inch or two, but I was stopped at a red light. Suddenly, I have become more sympathteic to Smotherman’s position. But LaLance is right. The result changes behavior. I will stop  several feet from the intersection from now on. And I will be expecting a friendly letter in my mailbox.

In other business, the council:

  • Deferred a decision on whether to extend a ban on large mortars and reloadables to what are called “cakes” — several mortars bound together. The original ban was imposed because some of the large mortars were being used as weapons. City attorney Susan McGannon said the extension is justified because in recent years these mortar cakes have also been used as weapons.

But LaLance and Smotherman both suggested that maybe the focus should be on the violator and not the tool (mortar cakes) used in the violation. This is the same debate has has gone on for years over gun control.

  • approved spending  $155,000 in for initial  design work to bring a “Miracle” baseball field for special needs kids to Murfreesboro.
  • passed on final reading an ordinance to rezone a 26 acre parcel between NHK Seating and the Subway restaurant on Joe B,. Jacson from Light Industry to Heavy Industry.
  • gave the recreation department the okay to begin a low-cost dance program for kids.