City defends traffic cameras

Top Chattanooga officials on Monday gave area legislators a tour of their traffic-camera enforcement program and offered it up as a possible statewide model for lawmakers suspicious such programs are more about money than they are about safety.

Mayor Ron Littlefield touted the city's use of revenue from its red light and speeding cameras to help fund drivers education programs for young drivers.

"There will be people alive in the future because of that measure," the mayor said.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, told local officials that the General Assembly is "going to pass something" to curb abuses. He said in a later interview that lawmakers may look at some aspects of Chattanooga's program as a model.

"It could be," Rep. Harmon said. "I don't know what the committee is going to come out with - but we're going to have to come out with something that's (a) statewide regulation because everybody's going crazy with these things."

Police Chief Freeman Cooper urged lawmakers not to gut what in his view is primarily a safety program that he said has helped lower fatalities from 37 in 2006 to 21 in 2009.

"What we don't want to see happen, chairman, is that it's so restrictive that we can't do what's right for our citizens," he said "I know the abuse is a possibility there, just like anything else."

Lawmakers begin their annual legislative session later this month.

Earlier, Mr. Littlefield, City Council members, Chief Cooper, city traffic engineer John Van Winkle and other officials gave lawmakers a bus tour of some of the city's traffic camera installations. Among them were cameras along the "S" curves on Hixson Pike, which officials said have dramatically cut accidents.

Officials also saw red light cameras being used at the intersection of state Highway 153 and Hamill Road as well as a mobile unit working a site along Amnicola Highway.

Later, they visited police headquarters where they were given a lengthy presentation on the city's program. Chief Cooper told them the program is a "voluntary program" in that motorists have a choice on whether they will violate traffic laws.

Mr. Van Winkle said the city puts its red light cameras at six intersections identified by statistics as "hot spots" for serious accidents. The red light cameras have had an effect in lowering crashes, he said.

But he noted the most dramatic impact has been with the speed cameras, citing the "S" curves along Hixson Pike. He said the deadly stretch of road had 101 accidents in 2001 - six years before the cameras went up.

"Last year we only had four crashes," he said.

Lawmakers said they don't doubt the impact on the "S" curves. But in a one-on-one conversation with City Council Chairman Jack Benson, Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, pointed out other problems, noting some cities don't ticket motorists for failing to come to a complete stop when making a right turn on red at a traffic light. But the city of Red Bank does, he said.

"People are so paranoid now they won't turn right on red," he said, later noting, "there's no consistency."

In response to similar questions raised by Rep. Harmon, Chief Cooper said Chattanooga does not issue tickets on motorists making turns on red. Speeding citations are issued only when motorists go 10 mph above the speed limit, he said.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said while the presentation was a good one, he isn't getting complaints from constituents about "too few speeding tickets being passed out. Quite frankly. I've had some call and say they're uncomfortable with government putting cameras up and watching them."

Mr. Benson told lawmakers he had "not heard anybody really give any justifiable reason why we shouldn't use the speeding cameras. In fact, everything that's been said about that, it's not an arbitrary" decision.

He said if lawmakers have issues about laws being enforced, "maybe the laws need to be changed. I personally want laws enforced or changed if the law's not enforceable or subjective and unfair."

He noted that in an increasingly populated society, "we're going to have cameras."

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