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June 24, 2003

Red Light Cameras

Al Duke

State Sen. Alex Mooney (R., 3rd) was interviewed on Blaine Young's Frederick Forum on WFMD on Saturday. The discussion on red light cameras was most enlightening.

As we all know, the running of red lights is a serious problem. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, more than 800 people are killed and more than 200,000 are injured each year by drivers who run red lights. More than half the deaths are pedestrians and occupants of other vehicles.

Red light cameras have been proposed as a solution to this problem, and their use is proliferating, not only in the United States, but also around the world.

The institute describes the process of taking pictures by noting that vehicles are only photographed if they enter the intersection after the light turns red. If a vehicle enters the intersection on yellow and then the light turns red, the vehicle is not photographed.

Senator Mooney on Saturday noted a case in which many of the vehicles in a funeral procession received red light camera tickets even though funeral processions are permitted to go through red lights. In this case, he observed that policemen had even halted the cross-traffic!

The Capital News Service, on January 25, 2002, reported that two Cumberland men received red light camera tickets from Baltimore, each picturing vehicles that were not theirs. Appeals to Mayor Martin O'Malley were fruitless. The men received demands to pay up.

Senator Mooney also described his personal experience with a ticketing authority after his vehicle was stolen and the thief ran at least two red lights with cameras.

Now, it's interesting to see that Senator Mooney has an unusual partner in his anti-red light camera campaign. The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, on April 22, 2003, informed the Mayor of Providence, David Cicilline, and the City Council that it opposed a proposal to install red light cameras in Providence.

The ACLU noted that the proposal raised both privacy and due process issues. Currently when a driver breaks a traffic law, he or she is immediately confronted with the offense by a police officer. With a red light camera it may be weeks before the driver receives a ticket, the ACLU letter adds.

The ACLU also states that the assumption is that the owner of the vehicle and the driver are the same person. Senator Mooney would dispute that assumption, I'm sure. And as Mr. Young said on Saturday, so are we supposed to turn in our spouse or child or friend who was driving the car? The Rhode Island ACLU and Senator Mooney agree that this system forces an accused to prove his or her innocence. They both note that American jurisprudence is not supposed to work this way.

The City of Providence openly stated that the purpose of this effort was to raise revenue. This is a refreshing statement, since in most places where red light cameras are installed the local politicos downplay that particular aspect of the issue. Traffic enforcement should not be a revenue enhancement. The goal of traffic enforcement should be to reduce revenue by causing people to obey the law.

Another issue regarding red light cameras is the connection with the companies that do the work for the various jurisdictions. The contracts vary from place to place. In some places the contractor gets a kickback for each ticket issued. Thus, according to the Rhode Island ACLU, it is to the company's advantage that people keep running red lights. In other localities, the contractor gets a percentage of the take, depending on how much money is raised.

There has even been talk that some jurisdictions have shortened yellow lights in order to catch more people.

There are just too many problems with red light cameras. The most significant one is the principle of presumption of innocence.

My previous view was that running red lights is bad. It causes a lot of accidents, with deaths and injuries. Red light cameras could help authorities get a handle on the problem, so despite the issues they were okay with me.

That was then, this is now. Since listening to the radio discussion, I've obviously done some web surfing. There's a lot more information that won't fit into a small column. But now I've come to the conclusion that red light cameras, as generally used, are a bad idea. Senator Mooney's bill does allow cameras in a school zone, at railroad crossings, and in conjunction with enforcement by a police officer. I agree that these conditions restrict red light cameras to those specific situations where they can be most effective without jeopardizing an individual's privacy or rights.

Some things we might try include lengthening the yellow light by a second or two, keeping the opposing red light red for a couple of seconds of overlap of reds before turning green, and enforcing this and other traffic offenses in "zero tolerance" campaigns. Maybe we need more police officers and sheriff's deputies. That's another column.

So, my view has changed, and I'm not in favor of the general use of red light cameras. After all, if Senator Mooney and the ACLU are in general agreement, what other view could possibly prevail?

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