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Traffic light cameras capture different points of view

Seeing Green, Seeing Red

While both sides insist that public safety is paramount, it’d be hard to find an issue as divisive as the recent drive to install traffic light cameras at city intersections. Some city officials, including Mayor Byron Brown and Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson, advocate the devices as much for their alleged effectiveness in decreasing red-light runners as for their potential to generate revenue from tickets automatically issued to violators.

Representatives from the Parkside Community Association testified that the situation is particularly dire in their neighborhood, where the elderly and young are at special risk as they try to avoid reckless drivers zooming through the red light by the zoo. Studies supporting their position were cited, including one from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety—a group that would benefit if statistics from other studies are in fact true—findings that demonstrate an increase in rear-end collisions where the cameras are deployed as drivers lock up the brakes to avoid a $100 ticket.

Radio personality Tom Ragan countered by reading a long list of municipalities who’ve tried using similar cameras and have since repealed their use. He characterizes the cameras as a disingenuous “money-grab” dressed up as a public safety measure. Others supporting his view wondered: If the cameras achieve their stated goal of preventing red-light running, they won’t generate much money at all. At which point, how will the cash-strapped city continue to pay the private vendors that will be providing the equipment and services to run them?

City Hall is banking on continued recklessness, and estimates the proposed take will be somewhere between $3 million and $8 million.

Councilmember Mickey Kearns shifted the debate to the maddening timing of red lights in the city, and used persuasive statistics to illustrate that red light accidents have been significantly reduced in other places around the country where an extra second is added to the length of the yellow warning light. This way, studies have shown, inconsiderate stragglers and thoughtless speeders can make their way through an intersection before cars and pedestrians are given the green light to move across it.

Safety can also be increased by letting the light shine red in both directions for a brief time before changing the flow of traffic. Moreover, improving the citywide timing of traffic lights on well-traveled routes has been a persistent gripe from city motorists for years. A less expensive alternative to the cameras might be to tinker with the present system, rather than to add another element to it.

Another important issue out there is who will be responsible for paying the ticket based on the photograph of a car in an intersection? Recently, in Cleveland, where tickets were being sent to the owners of vehicles caught on camera, a judge ruled that people who rented or leased cars were being let off the hook. And people who owned their cars were being unfairly held responsible.

A city attorney explained that the ticket would be sent to whoever holds the car’s registration—like rental car companies, for example. One can imagine how well that’s going to sit with Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Alamo, Hertz, and Thrifty the next time we have an influx of out of town visitors trying to navigate our unique spoked street grid.

Other questions were raised by councilmembers David Rivera and Richard Fontana: What if you lend your car to someone, they run a red light, and you get a ticket? Corporation counsel explained that you could come in and argue the fact that you weren’t behind the wheel, but you should be prepared to identify the person to whom you lent your car. The city would then contact the accused, and attempt to get them to pay up.

And since we’re dealing in legal abstraction, let’s ponder what would happen if that person said that upon borrowing the car, he immediately drove to a third party’s house, and lent the car to that person. At which point, that person lent it to his mother-in-law.

Or let’s say your son sneaks out of the house in the middle of the night, takes the car, and gets caught on camera breaking various traffic laws? What then?

The matter was tabled, but as early as next Tuesday, city lawmakers may vote on a resolution petitioning lawmakers in Albany to give the red light camera pilot project the green light.

buck quigley

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