Traffic cameras on radar of lawmakers

Traffic cameras on radar of lawmakers

October 19th, 2009 by Andy Sher in News

Where are they?

Chattanooga speed cameras

* "S" curves on Hixson Pike

* Barton Avenue across from GPS

* South Crest Road at the Tennessee/Georgia border

Chattanooga red-light cameras

* M.L. King Boulevard and Pine Street

* Brainerd and Moore roads

* Northbound Highway 153 at Hamill Road

* Northbound Highway 153 at Gadd Road

* Three mobile speed cameras

Red Bank red-light/speed cameras

* Dayton Boulevard and Signal Mountain Road

* Dayton Boulevard and Ashland Terrace

* Morrison Springs at Dayton Boulevard*

* Red light camera only on Morrison Springs

Who has them? Twenty-five states, including Georgia and Tennessee, as well as the District of Columbia have speed or traffic-light cameras, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Here are some of the 16 Tennessee towns and cities that have them. Red-light cameras are identified by "R" and speed cameras by "S."

Chattanooga R S

Cleveland R

Knoxville R

Memphis R

Murfreesboro R

Oak Ridge R S

Red Bank R S

NASHVILLE -- The use of cameras by Chattanooga and other Tennessee cities to nab speeders and red-light runners may be limited but not eliminated by the General Assembly, according to local lawmakers.

"I don't think we'll abolish them by any means," said House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap. "There's a possibility we may put some additional restraints on them or maybe look at fluctuating some of the length of time on the caution light or the actual red light."

Rep. Harmon's comments came after he presided over two days of sometimes contentious hearings last week on the use of photo-enforced traffic light and speed cameras. Some lawmakers have said they want to do away with the use of such cameras entirely.

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, the Transportation Committee's vice chairman, said the cameras serve a useful purpose but that he is open to tweaking the program.

"I think we need to absolutely standardize the use of these cameras statewide," said Rep. Dean, who worked for 27 years as a Chattanooga policeman. "It's been proven that they are working in so much as they are reducing the number of crashes."

Proponents such as Chattanooga Traffic Engineer John Van Winkle and police Chief Freeman Cooper testified last week that the cameras have promoted greater traffic safety.

"It's proven to reduce accidents, injuries and fatalities," Mr. Van Winkle told House members, citing the impact of speeding cameras along the "S" curves on Hixson Pike. "It allows police departments the opportunity to use their officers in other fashions."

While a number of police officials from different cities testified about traffic-light cameras reducing accidents, Mr. Van Winkle said in a subsequent e-mail that "we do not have sufficient data to be able to draw any conclusions as to their effectiveness. Some of the accidents rates have gone up slightly, and some have gone down."

Critics questioned whether the issue is not so much safety but revenue for cities and the private companies contacted to install the high-tech cameras and forward information to police. Cities are allowed to charge violators $50 per ticket. The tickets are considered civil infractions and do not count on drivers' records.

Rep. Joe McCord, R-Maryville, who has fought to impose new controls on photo-enforcement programs over the past three years, said all use of cameras should be banned.

"This is about privatizing police power for profit," Rep. McCord said. "People are livid."

He said more people have complained to him about photo enforcement than anything else except the proposed state income tax back in the early 2000s.

Critics also question the program's constitutionality despite a 2008 state attorney general's legal opinion that says cameras don't violate due process and privacy rights. The opinion also notes that police -- not the private vendor -- must make the determination, based on photographic evidence, that a traffic violation has occurred.

During the hearing, lawmakers voiced suspicion that vendors are making determinations of guilt instead of police, questioned if cities and vendors have tampered with the timing of cautionary yellow lights to boost violations and revenue and wondered if vendors are getting too high a percentage of the money generated.

Mr. Van Winkle said the cameras are "not just to balance a budget," and he described the city's plans for a drivers' education program for Chattanooga teens funded by fines that come from the photo-enforced cameras.

But Rep. Harmon took issue, citing recent Chattanooga Times Free Press articles about a cash-strapped City Council using nearly $400,000 of $900,000 in the traffic-camera enforcement fund to support the use of take-home vehicles for 338 police personnel and 25 to 30 other city employees.

Rep. Dean said how cities can spend the funds should be standardized.

"We need to make sure the money is being used for public safety initiatives," he said. "Driver's education -- that would naturally be a fit."

But Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said decisions about how money generated by the cameras gets spent should be made here, not in Nashville.

"We're a home rule community, and I like to think we can make our decisions as well as the legislature," he said.

As for yellow light timing, the mayor said he prefers to "leave it up to the traffic engineer to tell us how long the caution light should be on. Traffic engineering is a science."