To get the attention of passing drivers, Nick Sherwood covered his head with a giant cardboard box shaped like a traffic camera. A sign that hung from his neck said, "Will Flash For Ca$h."
Nearby, others held signs with slogans such as “Honk if you hate cams” and “Safety before profit.”
Above them, they counted 11 photo-enforcement cameras that snapped away at passing vehicles in the intersection of state Route 512 and South Tacoma Way.
“We saw tickets being issued every minute, every time the light was changing,” said Tim Stocker of Tacoma, who was among two dozen camera critics who staged their first protest last month in Lakewood. “They’d get caught in the wide intersection, because the traffic would pile up. Boom, there’s another” $101 ticket.
This afternoon, protesters again will target cameras at five intersections in Western Washington. The protests are part of an organized effort to eventually get a statewide ban on the cameras, which aim to capture speeders or red-light runners.
Sherwood, 35, and wife Tiffany, 32, will be at Pacific Highway and 54th Avenue East in Fife. Other demonstrations are planned in Lacey, Renton, Bremerton and Lynnwood.
The Sherwoods, who are Puyallup residents, started the anti-camera group early this year.
“We had been discussing taking up the issue with some of our friends after watching the cameras increase in numbers and function,” Nick Sherwood said. “We heard many of our friends complaining about the cameras, so we decided to take a look at them. What we found was pretty unsettling.”
As their movement gained momentum, Tiffany created a website called “bancams.com.”
“I wanted to protest the cameras because the politicians don’t want to get rid of them since they are making money from them,” she said. “So maybe if they know how many people are against the cameras, they might not be so eager to keep them or put more in, or hopefully they would have a change of heart and remove them altogether. For instance, not one person on the Puyallup City Council opposed putting in the cameras. But if there is public outrage, they might think twice about it if it comes up for a vote again.”
Tacoma, Fife, Lakewood, Puyallup, Lacey and Federal Way all have traffic cameras. Municipalities split income from the cameras with the companies contracted to run them.
Bancams.com lists 17 reasons to ban the cameras, including the burden on the innocent, conflict of interest, and lack of audit and oversight. The site also links to nine studies that show the cameras increase the frequency of crashes.
Lakewood spokesman Jeff Brewster said the city has good reason to use the cameras.
“Those who run red lights are breaking the law and have the potential to kill or maim others, and Lakewood has its fair share of red-light runners,” he said. “If we wanted to maximize revenue from red-light cameras in Lakewood, we would certainly dedicate more than three intersections.”
In about four weeks, he said, the city will receive data from the state about the cameras at state Route 512 and South Tacoma Way, which will give insight into whether crashes have gone up or down or stayed the same.
“When we get that we’ll be in a much better position to do a before and after” comparison, Brewster said.
Protester Mark Stewart, 35, of Puyallup drives a tractor-trailer for a living. He said he’s seen people make unsafe driving decisions out of fear of getting caught by a camera: They hit the brakes as soon as a light turned yellow, or stop halfway into an intersection because they were too afraid to continue through.
“If this was truly about safety, there is a very simple answer: Extend the yellow light and increase the time before the other light turns green,” he said.
Until restrictions are in place, the anti-camera group plans to continue its protests in order to build awareness and momentum.
In Olympia, bills that proposed regulating traffic cameras statewide didn’t make it through the House or the Senate.
“Every single town and city is wiring up more and more lights,” said Pierce County Councilman Shawn Bunney, who held a sign that said “Don’t Flash Me Bro” at the Lakewood protest. “It’s an unnecessary way to extract dollars from people’s wallets. There are people making millions of dollars off the backs of taxpayers, convincing local cities to wire up. It needs to be reined in.”
The county backed off a proposal last year to add red-light cameras at several intersections. Bunney said he’s moving toward a proposal to keep unincorporated Pierce County traffic camera-free.
Tiffany Sherwood said local members have been getting advice and protest ideas from a group in Arizona, CameraFraud.com.
“We eventually hope to get an initiative going so we can move through the municipalities and into the state to ban an unfair level of supervision,” Stocker said.
He started a Facebook group that had nearly 500 members as of Friday afternoon.
“It was a fingertip way of facilitating discussion and testing the waters to see if I wasn’t the only disgruntled person concerned about how the government was joining with private companies to garner funds from private citizens to do a job that the police are fine and able to do,” Stocker said.
“They’re relying on the perception that they’re increasing safety, which is not the case,” he said, citing studies that say two-thirds of the cameras create an increase in accidents. Another study, he said, shows 80 percent of the citations are for free right turns.
“The whole thing is just a big, foul mess,” he added.
A related Pierce County anti-camera Facebook page, started by Tiffany Sherwood, had more than 600 fans. The group has created Facebook pages for Thurston, King, Snohomish, Kitsap, Spokane and Cowlitz counties. Portland also has one.
She said the group has people of all ages, races and political backgrounds.
In addition to Bunney, a Republican, the “Stop the Traffic Cameras in Pierce County” group on Facebook includes Nathe Lawver, chairman of the Pierce County Democratic Party.
Lawver said Friday that his concern is that the money from tickets goes to profit companies outside the state.
“It’s about jobs,” Lawver said. “Those cameras could be an officer, they could be people working for our city processing the fines. Those people would then turn around and spend that money in our city with our local businesses.”
Another prominent name on the Facebook page is that of Tacoma City Councilman Marty Campbell, who says he’s modified his anti-traffic camera stance.
He said when he joined the council, he asked for a data report on Tacoma’s traffic camera system.
“I was really fired up about this,” he said. “Then they gave me a review, and I found that in Tacoma, we’re not as aggressive as some municipalities.”
He said Tacoma’s fine is $101, when it could be set higher. Cameras were targeted at the most dangerous intersections and stretches of road, including the Bay Street curve, where he’s noticed improved compliance.
“While traffic cameras in themselves can be controversial, just as controversial can be the application in which they’re applied, and how aggressive they are,” he said.
Cole Cosgrove: 253-597-8267