EDITORIAL: Alexandria’s dangerous yellow-light game

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The city of Alexandria has shortened the duration of the yellow light at a busy intersection. This scheme risks lives in a shameless attempt to increase profits from red-light cameras. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell alone can put a stop to the city’s deadly policy with the stroke of his pen.

On Monday, the General Assembly enrolled House Bill 1292, preparing it for Mr. McDonnell’s signature. The measure makes what appear to be minor technical changes to an existing law authorizing photo enforcement. Specifically, it gives the companies behind traffic cameras direct access to the private information contained in Department of Motor Vehicles records. The idea is to make it cheaper for cities and counties to outsource their law enforcement to these companies, which frequently are based in foreign countries.

So far, Virginia Beach has been the only city willing to implement cameras without this change, but not from lack of desire on the part of the others. Alexandria, for example, issued a press release on June 16, claiming that it had begun a “30-day warning period” for an “active” red-light camera program. Indeed, the cameras are installed and even flash motorists, but the system isn’t issuing tickets yet.

City officials reluctantly admitted to The Washington Times that it would be “very labor-intensive” to operate the program themselves, as required under current law, and that they have been waiting for the legislative fix. In other words, the more “safety” costs, the less Alexandria is interested. Other jurisdictions in the Old Dominion appear to feel the same way.

Mr. McDonnell should intervene and stop them from allowing their lust for revenue to endanger lives.

Consider what Alexandria is doing. In its first dalliance with robotic ticketing in November 1997, Alexandria placed cameras at the intersection of South Patrick and Gibbon streets with the yellow time set at three seconds, the shortest time allowed under federal regulations. Tickets piled up, with about 80 percent of the violations taking place less than a second after the light turned red. By March 1999, there had been no increase in safety, and the yellow timing at this location was quietly increased to four seconds. That extra second gave drivers the time needed to clear the intersection, and violations immediately plunged 80 percent.

The Washington Times verified that Alexandria officials have now shortened the yellow time at the intersection back down to just three seconds - the timing that produced so many violations in 1997. Worse, the Virginia Department of Transportation, under Gov. Tim Kaine’s administration, certified this reduced timing as appropriate.

Alexandria cannot pretend this action had anything to do with safety. The Virginia Transportation Research Council exploded the red-light-camera safety myth by documenting a 29 percent increase in collisions following Alexandria’s original camera experiment. The results can only be worse if Alexandria is allowed to transform an artificially induced increase in violations into cold, hard cash.

The governor must make a choice. He can side with the municipal and photo-enforcement lobbyists, or he can side with the people who put him in office by denying cities the cash cow they so desperately desire. We hope Mr. McDonnell makes the right choice, the safe choice, and vetoes HB 1292.

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