Save cameras, nail scofflaws

Save cameras, nail scofflaws

January 14th, 2010 in Opinion Times

Tennessee's Legislature rarely does anything well, but it often does the wrong thing to an extreme. Consider, for example, the bill proposed Tuesday by the House Transportation Committee that would effectively phase out, in two years, local governments' use of traffic cameras to inhibit reckless drivers from running red lights and to slow speeders on dangerous or congested streets where blatant speeding is a constant problem.

Chattanooga and other municipalities, here and across the state, make valuable use of such cameras. The city's experience on the S-curves on Hixson Pike -- where 10 deaths occurred in a 30-month period -- amply illustrates their value. Since they were installed, the rate of traffic accidents and deaths have been dramatically reduced. Use of the cameras has demonstrably saved lives.

Speeding and running traffic lights have similarly been reduced on a number of other troublesome roads and intersections, across the city and in Red Bank and East Ridge.

Traffic cameras work well to slow speeders and stop traffic violations for very transparent reasons. One is that municipalities generally announce their location, and word then spreads among drivers that they don't need to be seen by a policemen to get a ticket for an obvious traffic violation in those locations. Another reason is that most drivers hate paying a $50 camera-based traffic ticket that arrives as an unwelcome surprise in the mail.

It's as simple as that.

Though lawmakers seem determined to stamp out traffic cameras to calm the complaints of angry scofflaws, here's the core truth: People who follow the law don't have to worry about traffic cameras, or pay fines for photographed offenses. And here's its corollary: Drivers who violate traffic laws get caught more easily and consistently by cameras than by policemen who make just random patrols of traffic hotspots.

No driver, of course, wants to get nailed by a traffic camera. But for the logic of it, we can't figure out what's wrong with their use. Cameras are far more effective, and ultimately far more cost-efficient, than the alternative of poor enforcement and more accidents due to speeding and red-light-running.

Most municipalities can't afford to hire enough roving police officers to effectively monitor traffic hot spots. Conversely, the less often drivers see police officers patrolling, the more they -- that is, we, the driving public -- seem to speed. Witness the raceways that Amnicola Highway, Highway 153 and I-24, I-75 and Corridor J have become. Similarly, the local trunk routes -- MLK Boulevard/Bailey Avenue, Hixson Pike, Brainerd/East Brainerd roads, for example -- also bear traffic that regularly runs 10 miles an hour or more over posted speed limits.

Legislators on the Transportation Committee, however, appear to have totally ignored public traffic safety needs and the value of traffic cameras for calming and regulating traffic.

Their bill would put a two-year moratorium on the placement of new traffic cameras and would prohibit renewals of contracts with companies that install and maintain them in that period. And after the moratorium expires, they would prohibit use of cameras unless local governments could demonstrate that they had exhausted all other reasonable engineering solutions to moderate traffic offenses.

Even then, the use of cameras would be essentially barred through excessive regulation of application processes, fee caps, police inspection of all citations, and bureaucratic obstacles.

Cumulatively, that amounts to an effective phase-out and ban of traffic cameras. Both police and public officials are against this proposed legislation for very good reasons. The Legislature ought to listen to them when this bill comes up for a vote -- and ignore the scofflaws who rail about their perceived intrusions of a government. If we can't hire enough policemen, we need the cameras to keep speeding drivers mindful of the law.