Traffic camera standards eyed

Traffic camera standards eyed

December 14th, 2010 by Andy Sher in News

Staff Photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press One of three traffic cameras at the intersection of Ashland Terrace and Dayton Boulevard in Red Bank records traffic light violations.

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee lawmakers may take another look in the upcoming session at cities' use of traffic cameras to catch speeders and red-light runners.

Lawmakers are discussing guidelines to make sure camera programs boost safety rather than serve as high-tech, money-grabbing "speed traps."

"We've got to have some standards in place that will be statewide and will prohibit some of these companies from setting up 'legal' speed traps," said Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Red Bank is one of about 20 cities in Tennessee that uses traffic cameras. In Hamilton County, Chattanooga also uses the devices.

Last year, Dean, a former Chattanooga police lieutenant, was among lawmakers whose concerns stalled House efforts to enact tough restrictions on photo-enforcement programs.

The measure went nowhere in the state Senate, but interest may be revving up. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, held a hearing last week to explore a Florida program that eliminates the per-ticket fees most camera vendors negotiate in their contracts.

"The camera should be intended for safety and not a revenue boost for the locals and we need to make sure that this is still the top priority," Tracy told colleagues.

The Florida law's sponsor, Republican House Speaker pro tem Ronald Reagan, said it allows local governments to set a flat monthly rate for each intersection, regardless of how many tickets are issued.

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's special assistant, Matt Lea, attended the Tennessee Senate hearing. Later, Lea questioned how a flat-rate contract would affect revenue. He said Chattanooga uses traffic camera revenues to pay for safety programs, including driver education for teens.

"Any time you change the way the percentage is, it could cost more for the city -- the exact number I don't know," Lea said. "If we have to rent the program on a monthly basis, it could probably cost more."

Reagan said similar questions were raised in Florida but camera companies eventually went along and renegotiated their contracts.

An attorney for camera vendor American Traffic Solutions Inc. -- which has the traffic-camera contracts in Red Bank and Chattanooga -- said the per-ticket fee is done "primarily to pay for the equipment and it allows local governments not to foot the bill up front."

Attorney Dale Allen, with Miller & Martin, which represents American Traffic Solutions and also lobbies for the firm, also questioned the legality of legislators interfering with an existing contract. He cited a Tennessee attorney general opinion issued earlier this year that said changes must be "reasonable."

COST OF SAFETY?

In the cities that use traffic cameras, the maximum ticket amount is $50, but court costs can significantly boost the total that motorists must pay. Tickets from cameras don't count against motorists' driving records.

Earlier this year, a state judge dismissed class action suits challenging the constitutionality of Chattanooga's and Red Bank's camera programs.

Chattanooga's red-light and speeding cameras are contracted with LaserCraft, owned by American Traffic Solutions Inc.

In Chattanooga, LaserCraft gets $19.50, or 39 percent, of each $50 red-light traffic ticket issued. The city keeps $30.50.

LaserCraft gets half of each $50 ticket from the mobile speed-camera program and $28, or 56 percent, of each ticket from a fixed traffic-camera site.

Red Bank also contracts with LaserCraft, which gets about 60 percent of the fine for each ticket.

Earlier this year, when the House looked ready to add tough restrictions to camera usage, Red Bank officials extended the LaserCraft contract for 12 years.

New Red Bank Mayor Monty Millard wants to end the program, but breaking the contract could be costly, city officials warn.

Dean disagrees with critics who want to outlaw all speed and traffic cameras, saying "to me, that's throwing the baby out with the bath water."

He cited results since Chattanooga began using speed cameras in 2007 on the once-deadly S curves section of Hixson Pike. There were 10 deaths in the S curves from 2000 to 2004. When the cameras were turned on, crashes plummeted from 20 in 2006 to four last year. The number of tickets issued in the curves dropped from 1,878 in June 2007 to 340 in November 2009.

During last week's state Senate hearing, Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, listened to a presentation by Chattanooga Police Capt. David Roddy on the city's camera-enforcement program.

Berke agreed the S curves were tamed by speed cameras, calling them "one of the best uses of cameras in the entire state."

But later he fretted about cameras' possible effect on privacy.

"I think there are places where it's proper to use them, but we can't just allow them everywhere," he said.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or asher@timesfreepress.com.

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