- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

Along major thoroughfares such as 14th Street, Constitution Avenue, Connecticut Avenue and K Street in Northwest, it's as if some drivers need a remedial course on primary colors. To them, green means go. Yellow means speed up. Red means block the intersection.
Common courtesy has been thrown out the window, along with the very thought of yielding the right of way, which seems a bygone concept.
Stand on any street corner, particularly at rush hour, and sure enough you're bound to witness red-light runners who only make gridlock worse. Which is why you can lend surface support, based on its law-enforcement value, to the photo-radar program that catches cheaters red-handed.
Those same troublesome "Candid Camera" tactics, which are also used to catch speeders, have cut down on crash fatalities by nearly 40 percent in some local jurisdictions, based on some insurance studies.
But here's the rub: The traffic traps are only welcome if they are administered fairly by an official law-enforcement agency, allow an avenue for judicial appeal and are not just another slick "fee" slapped on already-strapped taxpayers.
Enter lawyers Thomas Ruffin Jr. and Horace L. Bradshaw Jr., who have filed a class-action suit to force the District to return all fines from traffic cameras because, they argue, the traffic tools violate constitutional due-process rights.
Their case should not be summarily dismissed. Similar cases in other jurisdictions, including San Diego and Denver, have proved favorable to the plaintiffs.
The D.C. Corporation Counsel is certain to challenge the validity of this necessary lawsuit at a hearing in D.C. Superior Court today. But the judge should allow the case to go forward, if for no other reason than to give motorists their day in court.
The lawyers argue that their clients the entire "class of automobile owners" ticketed have little opportunity to present "mitigating circumstance" at meaningless hearings to protest their hefty fines because there is a "presumed liability," or guilt, on the part of hearing examiners.
The District has gotten this one backward. Lest we forget, there is a presumption of innocence guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The Corporation Counsel's Office is not up to par, but even high school students know that you are "innocent until proven guilty."
Just because the cameras captured a shady picture of a vehicle's license plate does not mean that the owner of that vehicle was the driver at the time and should be held accountable. I know, as do most parents, what a problem that presents.
The lawyers' objection to police powers being transferred to a private, for-profit company also has much merit.
Mr. Ruffin told The Washington Times that the city and Affiliated Computer Service Inc., which administers the photo-radar program for the District, have designed a system that lets the city process as many tickets as possible to keep the money rolling in.
The proliferation of private contracts and the often-incestuous relationship to contractors in the District are as troubling now as they were during previous administrations.
The idea of reviewing the enforcement camera's accuracy periodically should be undertaken because private contractors usually administer the program and get a portion of the proceeds.
We have heard a tale or two about malfunctioning cameras, but they were adjusted once the problem was brought to light. The Times also has reported numerous examples of motorists' complaints about errors.
Last year, then-Rep. Dick Armey, Texas Republican, took a lot of heat for hopping all over D.C. officials for instituting the traffic traps because he insisted that the red-light cameras are nothing more than cash cows for local governments. In hindsight, he may have been right.
In September, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams publicly acknowledged that he wants the cameras for "safety and revenue." He added, "And the way not to pay that tax is to not be speeding," he said. Anyone who has received one of those tickets knows there is speeding (at 36 mph) and there's reckless speeding, which enough police officers on actual patrol duty would catch without cameras.
Some Maryland jurisdictions also use traffic cameras. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, like Mr. Williams, obviously supports the "Candid Camera" technique.
"This is a life-and-death issue in my county, and your criticism of the law enforcement tools we're employing to combat it show insensitivity to the victims [of traffic accidents] and to the importance of the issue at hand," Mr. Duncan wrote in a letter he fired off to Mr. Armey last year.
Mr. Armey also objected to cameras that catch speeders on the George Washington Parkway, which ought to be renamed the Death Valley Trail with all the horrendous fatalities that have occurred on that winding fast track in recent years.
The critical difference between Mr. Duncan's and Mr. Williams' support for the cameras, however, is cash.
That important monetary difference is the reason AAA, which generally supports the use of traffic cameras, withdrew its support for the D.C. program.
Based on findings by The Times on the police department's Web site, the District raised $26,451,367 from radar cameras through last month.
The city mailed out 510,667 citations, and 356,315 motorists have paid the fines. The red-light cameras have generated $20,983,495 for the city in nearly five years of enforcement, with 242,748 motorists having paid the fines, out of 361,464 tickets issued.
Too bad city officials have lost sight of the only statistics that should matter, which come from the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety. It estimates that 260,000 crashes resulting in 800 deaths and 1,200 injuries a year are caused by red-light runners.
For safety alone, such "Candid Camera" tactics should exist.


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