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Proper laws put safety first on red light camera issue

Shreveport’s City Council got itself involved in some high comedy recently over a serious subject, the issue of red light cameras. Three years back, Councilman Calvin Lester proposed legalizing the use of these. They can take pictures of license plates and of drivers faces whose vehicles enter an intersection after the signal turned red. Council President Ron Webb wanted to bring up the long-tabled ordinance with the express purpose of defeating it. After a couple of weeks of debate the level of seriousness resembled slapstick, yesterday the Council finally got serious and voted to ban them.

Resolution at the state level may shape whatever comes next. Currently, legislation does not address the issue so local governments are free to regulate in any way. Competing bills have been introduced in this session of the Legislature, one to ban the use of such cameras completely, the other that would divert half the proceeds to the state. But before deciding policy in this area, the positives and negatives of these devices need consideration.

There is only one justification to have the cameras, and that is because they increase safety. Studies do show that even their presumed presence can significantly reduce incidence of one of the most dangerous accidents, the front end of a vehicle smashing into the side of another. However, the problem is they tend to increase another, less serious kind of accident, rear-ending. The studies come to a wide range of conclusions about the tradeoff between these, where some conclude on the whole there is no aggregate safety increase, but the most optimistic scenario would argue that there is a small net economic benefit in the use of the cameras when weighing the number of kinds of accidents and their severities.

But there are other costs as well to consider, principally the questionable constitutional status of their use. System can be set up in two ways, to assist in a criminal matter that would require the face of the driver and review by the state and defendant, or a civil matter where only the license plate is recorded and the car’s owner charged regardless of who was driving. In both cases, issues remain that would require laws and procedures that would make the operation of the cameras costly.

Because of the Sixth Amendment right to face accusers, defendants who are knowledgeable about their rights can force the state to turn over the photographic evidence that should clearly identify the car and/or driver, have a police officer positively identify the photo through testimony (unless in the very unlikely event an officer was monitoring the camera’s image as it was taken), show the intersection was properly marked, and prove the camera was functioning correctly at the time (they often slip out of calibration). Prosecuting such an air-tight law to safeguard this right will consume many resources if even only a handful of defendants seriously contest the charges, because they could easily beat the charges otherwise.

Worst of all, the cameras tempt jurisdictions to use them as revenue generators. This leads to local governments setting up procedures designed to deflect the accused from exercising their rights to defend themselves (such as not informing them they can take the case to trial, turning over the photo only on request, etc.) and discourages authorities from pursuing other means (such as lengthening yellow light times or redesigning intersections) that have been shown to reduce substantially (although not as much as perception of a camera’s presence) the most severe kind of accidents. In fact, the cameras, operated by for-profit entities with revenues past their contracted level going to government, sometimes are so successful they don’t pay for themselves and governments remove them – showing just how “serious” they are about the safety aspect.

If we give the safety argument the benefit of the doubt and take into account constitutional imperatives along with the primary goal being safety, not revenue, then a state law should be passed along the following lines: allowing red light cameras under the conditions (1) it is funded solely by the local authority (2) with a minimum long yellow light time set in those intersections (3) which must be posted as having a camera (4) which must take pictures both of license plates and faces (5) that must be “clearly recognizable” after review by a police officer verified by a trial judge (6) from a camera proven calibrated accurately taking only vehicle and people photos after intersection entrance during a red light not making a legal right turn (7) subject to criminal proceedings (8) where any fine resulting from a conviction is paid not to the local jurisdiction but to fund the state’s Minimum Foundation Program that supports elementary and secondary education above the existing formula.

This law will protect constitutional rights and ensure that safety is the paramount consideration behind it. Anything less shows a jurisdiction is not serious about the safety issue and/or the risk of court intervention for constitutional violations and therefore has no business in utilizing camera enforcement.

1 comment:

AnnoyedInBR said...

The introduction of electronic traffic controls of any type are for revenue generation with safety the smoke screen for their usage. Your various conditions are interesting and not acceptable to any municipality because the revenue stream does not enhance general funds by committing them to educational purposes. Also, the revenue is shared with the camera company, a very much for profit entity that has carved out a niche business. You can bet the selling process to the municipalities isn't only on safety, but on monies to the coffers.

The problem with the cameras in addition to the issues you point out are that they don't account for other drivers that put an offending driver in a compromising situation such as the other car slowing unexpectedly, a car appearing to run the light from the other direction requiring braking, a pedestrian or bike rider approaching or crossing. An inexperienced non-judge judges you if you contest the ticket.

Also, in this and other situations, courts and governments need to be more cognizant of the time and money it costs individuals to deal with these nuisances, including those written by lazy officers who enforce laws with the utmost of inconsistency. We citizens need a mechanism to recoup our costs for lost time and other costs incurred from dealing with nuisance citations. That will be the only way we ever get better, consistent law enforcement from our governments. When they start losing money from this type of enforcement they will concentrate on doing what they paid to do instead of yakking on cell phones all day.