Legislators: Leave red-light cameras alone

Few topics generate as much heated debate as the use of cameras at intersections to nab motorists who run red lights.

Some people love the cameras, seeing them as a means of improving public safety and holding red-light runners accountable. Others hate them, saying they are an unwarranted government intrusion to the lives of residents. Few people are neutral on the topic.

Two South Sound legislators have stepped into the fray, saying Washington cities are misusing automated traffic cameras as a source of revenue. Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, and Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, want to reduce the cost of tickets — equating them to a parking citation.

The Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater area has little experience with cameras. Just one intersection — Pacific Avenue and Sleater-Kinney Road — is equipped with cameras, and a survey shows fewer collisions after they were installed.

Now that they have authorized red-light cameras and given law enforcement officers that tool, state lawmakers should butt out. City officials should decide whether red-light cameras are warranted, and whether they are improving public safety. There’s no evidence that cities are abusing their authority and using cameras to pad their beleaguered budgets.

Hurst has said he believes cities are installing more traffic cameras not to increase public safety but to make money. He’s concerned they might even try to shorten the length of yellow lights to catch more red-light runners and increase profits. “It’s like crack cocaine for cities,” Hurst said. “They get this revenue, and all of a sudden it’s ‘How can we get more?’ ”

That’s not been the experience in South Sound.

Lacey officials started cautiously. They first studied a number of intersections with heavy traffic volumes.

What they found was sobering. In a pilot project in November and December 2005, traffic cameras caught 142 violators during the course of five days — an average of three an hour. Think of the potential for accidents with three motorists blowing through red lights every hour.

After a warning period, Lacey police started using the cameras for enforcement. The cameras catch the infractions and after a review, police issue a $124 citation. Former Mayor Graeme Sackrison made it clear at the time the city installed the cameras that they were being put in place to improve public safety and reduce serious accidents — not as a revenue source for the city. The city’s net revenue was $189,000 between May 2008 and May 2009.

Last summer, Lacey police did a follow-up study. They found fewer collisions at the intersection of Pacific and Sleater- 0Kinney and also fewer motorists running the light.

“We’re writing less tickets,” said Lacey police Lt. Chris Ward. “We’re having less collisions. What it shows is that the actual dangerous behavior of running lights is being curbed. People are starting to get it, and we’re very happy.”

That’s been the experience in Puyallup, too, which saw a 52 percent reduction in red-light runners once the cameras were turned on in May 2008.

While there’s nothing like the humiliation that comes when a driver is pulled over by a police officer for breaking the law, given the positive experience with red-light cameras in Lacey, the City Council voted last August to extend its contract for red-light cameras for three years.

Now come the two lawmakers with proposed changes to state law.

A bill proposed by Rep. Hurst would reduce the maximum fine associated with photo violations to $25, while Sen. Kastama’s bill would make the fines equal to the cost of an average parking ticket — in the neighborhood of $50. Hurst’s bill also would require all photo- enforced intersections to have yellow lights that last four seconds.

Lengthening the yellow light might encourage more motorists to step on the gas pedal instead of the brake.

And lowering the fines might well lead to more reckless driving and red-light infractions because the consequences wouldn’t be as severe. Also, city officials say they wouldn’t be able to cover the cost of maintaining a photo enforcement program with such small fines.

There’s no evidence that cities are misusing their red-light enforcement tool. And if — as in the case of Lacey and Puyallup — it leads to fewer collisions and fewer infractions, then that’s a public safety improvement that state lawmakers should welcome not seek to change.