Red-light cam­eras stoke de­bate of safety tool or cash cow

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY DAN BOY­LAN

Across the Tampa Bay area con­tro­versy rages over red-light cam­eras. They are banned in St. Peters­burg but gen­er­ate mil­lions for Clear­wa­ter, mir­ror­ing a na­tional de­bate over whether the de­vices are public safety tools or cash cows for com­mu­ni­ties.

Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est data from the Na­tional Coali­tion of State Leg­is­la­tures, com­mu­ni­ties in 23 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia use red-light cam­eras for traf­fic en­force­ment.

But at least 11 states have banned them, in­clud­ing Texas, which did so ear­lier this year. There, law­mak­ers in­clud­ing Repub­li­can Gov. Gregg Ab­bott sided with driv­ers who ex­pressed dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the de­vices and ques­tioned their ef­fec­tive­ness.

“Com­mon sense says that red-light cam­eras have never pre­vented an in­ter­sec­tion ac­ci­dent or in­stance of red-light run­ning. The cam­eras are silent sen­tinels,” Gary Biller, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Mo­torists As­so­ci­a­tion, told The Washington Times.

Mr. Biller cited a Case West­ern Re­serve study from last year ar­gu­ing that the “pres­ence of red-light cam­eras typ­i­cally causes an in­crease in ac­ci­dents be­cause driv­ers, sud­denly aware of the tick­et­ing po­ten­tial of au­to­mated en­force­ment, tend to hit their brakes hard which of­ten re­sults in more ac­ci­dents (of the rear-end va­ri­ety) than if no cam­eras were present.”

The Na­tional Mo­torists As­so­ci­a­tion op­poses all au­to­mated traf­fic en­force­ment be­cause its mem­bers be­lieve the de­vices vi­o­late driver’s con­sti­tu­tional rights due to the lack of wit­nesses to al­leged vi­o­la­tions.

The de­vices have been con­tro­ver­sial since they first ap­peared in the 1990s at some of the coun­try’s most dan­ger­ous in­ter­sec­tions. Anger over them quickly mounted over fines that can run more than $200 in some places and of­ten prove to be hard to chal­lenge.

Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, how­ever, have praised the cam­eras’ ca­pac­ity to re­duce red-light ac­ci­dents, in ad­di­tion to their abil­ity to gen­er­ate rev­enue. Washington, D.C., made al­most $200 mil­lion from its net­work of speed and red-light cam­eras in 2017. Other com­mu­ni­ties rou­tinely re­port sim­i­lar wind­falls.

Ear­lier this month the AAA au­to­mo­bile own­ers club re­leased a study on gov­ern­ment crash data that only in­ten­si­fied the de­bate. AAA re­searchers that the num­ber of peo­ple killed by driv­ers run­ning red lights had hit a 10-year high, with roughly two peo­ple dy­ing each day.

AAA ad­mit­ted it was un­sure why the num­bers were rising, with an­a­lysts spec­u­lat­ing that dis­tracted driv­ing could be play­ing a role. But it did sug­gest that re­vers­ing the trend would en­tail gov­ern­ments in­creas­ing their use of red-light cam­eras, pro­vided that the de­vices were used to boost en­force­ment and not to raise rev­enue.

The In­sur­ance In­sti­tute for High­way Safety (IIHS), a pro­po­nent of cam­eras, ar­gues that trans­parency is para­mount in se­cur­ing cit­i­zen sup­port for the de­vices.

“The jury has been in for many years. Red-light safety cam­eras are a proven, ef­fec­tive tool to make ur­ban roads safer,” Russ Rader, IIHS se­nior vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, said in an email. “Public sup­port is a key is­sue.”

Cit­i­zen dis­sat­is­fac­tion and a non­trans­par­ent process have been at the heart of Tampa Bay’s strug­gle with the de­vices.

Florida state Sen. Jeff Bran­des, St. Peters­burg Repub­li­can, has in­tro­duced sev­eral bills since 2012 to out­law red-light cam­eras across the state, where courts rou­tinely dis­miss mas­sive batches of tick­ets for be­ing wrongly is­sued.

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