Politics & Government

State lawmaker, Eyman fight red-light cameras

Since installing red-light cameras, South Sound officials have cited the declining number of tickets issued at those intersections as evidence that people are driving more safely.

Tacoma saw a 32 percent drop in citations issued at its seven camera intersections during the second year of the program compared with the first. Puyallup issued 52 percent fewer photo-enforcement tickets between May and December 2009 compared with the same period the year before.

And Federal Way officials say they gave out roughly 25 percent fewer of those tickets per month in 2009 than in 2008.

Even so, red-light cameras are such a controversial technology that some state legislators want to limit them, voters in one city may reject them, and the Pierce County Council already has.

Federal Way Assistant Police Chief Andy Hwang says the cameras are doing their job.

“The bottom line is people’s behavior at these intersections has changed,” Hwang said. “People are not blocking intersections and not running red lights.”

Officials say the benefits extend beyond the red-light camera locations. Tacoma cited a 20 percent reduction in police accident calls across the city after its red-light camera program started.

Likewise, Fife City Manager Steve Worthington said that since his city’s camera program began, accident calls have gone down 20 percent citywide at all intersections.

“It has a halo effect in terms of extending beyond the photo-enforced intersections,” Worthington said. “People become aware of the cameras and are reminded of good driving habits.”

Still, the camera programs aren’t without enemies. Political activist Tim Eyman led an initiative drive this year in Mukilteo to let the public decide whether to add red-light cameras. On Nov. 2, voters in that Snohomish County city will be the first in Washington to get a say on the issue.

The Pierce County Council in 2008 approved installing cameras at up to six intersections, but it let the camera plan die after a group of Washington drivers filed a lawsuit against 19 cities, claiming they charged too much for traffic infractions caught on camera. A U.S. District Court judge later dismissed the suit, declaring the camera fines “not excessive.”

At the state level, at least one legislator continues to fight cities’ use of red-light cameras.

State Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, said several studies show the cameras don’t really help reduce accidents, and in certain places can actually make things worse. He thinks cities are using them solely to generate revenue.

This year, he introduced a bill to reduce the fines cities collect from red-light camera tickets and prevent cities from shortening yellow light times to catch more violators.

Ultimately, Hurst wants to see the cameras banned statewide, he said.

“Any time you increase a person’s risk of exposure to an accident, you are increasing the possibility they might get killed,” said Hurst, an ex-police officer who chairs the House Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee. “I cannot as a legislator allow the cities to put citizens’ lives at risk for the sake of revenue.”

Dick Doane, a research investigator for the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission, said studies show that although cameras may correspond to an initial increase in total accidents and rear-end collisions, those numbers typically go down over time. Studies cited by the state Traffic Safety Commission note that the cameras seem to help decrease serious-injury collisions and T-bone accidents.

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who chairs the city’s public safety committee, said she’s happy with the overall trend in accident rates at the city’s photo-enforced intersections and expects the numbers to keep improving.

She compared the city’s red-light camera program to fireworks regulations Tacoma enacted in 2007, which initially drew criticism because few tickets were issued the first year.

“The fireworks legislation was controversial when it first came out, and we see now it is working very well,” Strickland said. “I think with the red-light cameras, we will see that as well.”

Tacoma police Lt. Corey Darlington said Tacoma plans to review accident rates at its seven red-light camera intersections when the city’s contract with Arizona-based Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. comes up for renewal in 2012. At that point, city officials can talk about whether any cameras should be relocated or whether to add them to other intersections, he said.

The program is projected to bring the city about $1.5 million in ticket revenues during the 2009-2010 budget cycle.

Strickland said the city may expand the number of photo-enforced intersections, but the decision won’t be driven by revenue. She said city officials would be pleased if the cameras resulted in no tickets at all.

“The purpose of this is public safety,” Strickland said. “If we don’t have red-light tickets, that means people aren’t running red lights.”