Use of cameras to catch motorists who blow through red lights at intersections continues to be controversial.
Lawmakers want to put new restrictions on their use.
While state standards are appropriate, we believe cities and counties should be able to decide whether red lights suit their community and not have to deal with another dictate from state government — such as a public vote every time they want to add a camera.
In South Sound, for example, the Lacey City Council has opted to use photo enforcement at one intersection — Sleater Kinney Road and Pacific Avenue. Councils in Olympia and Tumwater have decided not to take advantage of the cameras, and instead rely on police officers in cruisers to catch motorists who run red lights.
That’s as it should be — local government officials working with law enforcement to determine what works in their community.
Two competing efforts have emerged in the opening days of the 2011 legislative session. The city of Tacoma has thrown its support around legislation to standardize the way cities adopt red-light and speed cameras, the signs they put up and the behavior they ticket, including right turns on red. Supporters say it will make sure other cities are as careful as Tacoma has been in using cameras.
Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, a retired police detective has a bill that would give voters a veto every time a city wants to add cameras. “If the Legislature does not act, there will be an initiative on the ballot,” Hurst predicts.
The bills reflect two opposing views of cameras.
Supporters note that officers cannot monitor every intersection and the motoring public knows it. As a result, they say, red-light running has become commonplace. That puts other motorists at risk — especially of T-bone collisions — and pedestrians, too. A pedestrian who sees the “walk” sign may be unaware that a motorist has decided to scoot through the red light. It’s a recipe for disaster.
Red-light camera detractors ascribe a sinister motive to them. They say cameras are an unwarranted intrusion from “big brother” aimed simply and solely at boosting city coffers by collecting traffic fines from thousands of motorists. Critics see red-light cameras as a revenue tool, not a program to enhance public safety.
No doubt, requiring voter approval would make it harder for more cities to join the list of those using photo enforcement — which already includes Lacey, Auburn, Lakewood, Puyallup, Federal Way, Fife and Tacoma.
Hurst said his priority is to set standards that make red-light cameras more forgiving to drivers who pass under lights as they turn from yellow to red.
Democratic Rep. Connie Ladenburg, a former Tacoma City Council member, said her proposal would address some of drivers’ biggest concerns about the cameras. One worry is that cameras ensnare drivers who are turning right on red, and who inch forward into the turn instead of making the required complete stop. She also wants to standardize the length of yellow lights across the state.
The Tacoma-backed bill also would expand the locations where speed cameras could be placed to include streets along transit stations and heavily used parks. It would restrict school-zone cameras to the beginning and end of the school day.
We believe Ladenburg has the better approach. The state should not micromanage traffic control at the local level.
Hurst said without a legislative crackdown on cameras, what happened in Mukilteo last fall will be repeated across this state. Voters there supported an initiative to cap fines and require voter approval before adding red-light cameras. If lawmakers don’t act, Hurst said, an initiative will be drafted and passed by voters.
Truth be told, the authority to use red-light cameras has not been abused in South Sound. And Lacey’s example is a good one.
City officials narrowed their emphasis to a single intersection, and then only to eastbound and westbound traffic.
Lacey Police Cmdr. John Suessman said the city issued something like 3,976 citations in 2009. Last year, the number of citations dropped to 2,009.
“Are we changing driver behavior? I believe so,” Suessman said. “Are we making intersections safer. I believe so. The whole purpose of traffic enforcement is to change traffic behavior and make it safer, so it’s definitely working. That’s the purpose of red lights, it’s not to raise revenue.”
Ladenburg’s approach to standardize regulations for cameras to ensure the enforcement system is not being misused makes sense.
To those who complain about cameras as a revenue source, the message is quite simple: Don’t run a red light and you won’t be cited.