Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Money Trumps Traffic Camera Changes

Despite evidence that lengthening the time a traffic light is yellow reduces accidents, the TN legislature has decided to support the tactic of using automatic cameras. So more tickets and more revenue win the day.

The bill from Rep. Joe McCord essentially died in committee Tuesday. Also in the KNS report was this oddity - efforts to exempt some cities from the changes if it were adopted:

The subcommittee session also included moves by several legislators to exempt their home counties from coverage by McCord's bill. Rep. Ben West, D-Nashville, proposed first that Davidson County be exempt.

After the Nashville amendment was adopted, West then proposed to exempt Knox County from coverage by the bill - over objections from McCord that the law needs to be consistent statewide."

And, as mentioned in yesterday's post, the proposed bill would forbid local governments from contracting with private companies to operate the red light camera systems. As I understand it, those companies get the bulk of the revenue and send a portion back to the city. But the entire bill is pretty much dead in the water.

Other cities are debating this use (or abuse) of raising revenues based on tickets issued with no chance for the accused to confront their accuser. In Georgia, the legislature has passed a law demanding the monies raised would go (for the most part) ito the state and not to cities:

"Under House Bill 77, which passed 110-60, 75 percent of the profits cities and counties would otherwise make off the cameras would go to the state. The money would go to the general fund "with the intent" that it be used to improve trauma care in the state, the bill states.

"There's no guarantee that it will go to the trauma network," state Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, D-Atlanta, said in arguing against the bill.

But state legislators, and even the governor, have been looking for new funding sources for trauma care - the catch-all name for emergency room care for the most serious injuries. State officials say the trauma system needs major upgrades.

The red light bill also contains other provisions. It states that local governments can't tinker with the timing of a red light to decrease the yellow time before installing a camera. It requires a traffic engineering study before a camera is installed. It states that a motorist can't get a ticket from a police officer, then get another one because of the camera.

House Bill 77's initial intent was to outlaw red light cameras. Some legislators believe the rewritten bill will accomplish a similar goal, since cities and counties will be less likely to install them if they can't keep most of the profits."

I would imagine future changes (if any) will depend on the outcomes of Supreme Court cases in other states. But again, for now, the claim that cameras are all about saving lives pales when the discussion turns so quickly on who gets the money from these tickets, which cannot be appealed short of lawsuits.

The Redflex company, which pockets a percentage of all fines issued, says this is just all part of the modern world, where we are watched in ubiquitous fashion. In a USA Today story from 2006, the company explains they plan to expand their surveillance to roads as well as intersections. There are some key detractors to these camera programs according to the USA Today story:

"Perhaps the toughest critic of the cameras is the National Motorists Association. It's a driver advocacy group bent on keeping traffic flowing. It says that re-timing yellow lights — for one extra second — is more effective than installing traffic cameras.

"Putting up a camera only rewards a city for poor engineering," spokesman Eric Skrum says.

[Redflex CEO Karen] Finley is unmoved. "People who obey the law never have to deal with us," she says.

Soon, Redflex may seek more serious lawbreakers than those who run red lights. The company has just begun to look into potential for growth in the homeland security business, Finley says.

Redflex and its competitors are frequently criticized as invading personal privacy. Such criticism may get more vocal as the industry looks to expand the uses of its technology.

"If you take it to its logical extreme," says Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, an advocacy group, "we could become a society where automated systems are enforcing the law — a system of ubiquitous monitoring."

But Finley points out that cameras already "watch" people at ATMs. And at many convenience stores. And in offices all over the country. And in transit stations, airports and many other public spaces.

Security cameras are part of our culture, she says. Besides, she says, "When you use a public roadway, you give up your right to privacy."

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