- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2005

RICHMOND — Red-light cameras in Northern Virginia will have to come down July 1, following a House committee’s decision yesterday to reject legislation extending the program.

The pilot program ” in six Northern Virginia localities and Virginia Beach ” gave police departments an affordable way of catching red-light runners. Supporters say the cameras make roads safer. However, critics say the cameras are really money-making devices that invade a resident’s privacy and cause rear-end collisions.

Delegate Clifford L. Athey, Warren County Republican, said he knows that jammed-packed Northern Virginia roads are drawing comparisons to the Wild West and Dodge City.

But “the citizens who live there have some constitutional rights,” he said.

Mr. Athey said ticketing with cameras denies a motorist the rights “to confront one’s accuser” and “to be left alone.”

The House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee yesterday rejected several transportation-related bills ” including four others on red-light cameras and one to more strictly enforce the seat-belt law. There was little debate on the bills, which committee members have rejected for years. However, the committee endorsed a bill to prohibit motorists under age 18 from talking on cell phones while driving.

The Northern Virginia jurisdictions with red-light cameras are Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax counties, Fairfax City, Falls Church and Vienna. The pilot program began in 1995, and allows jurisdictions to issue a $50 ticket through the mail. The bills rejected yesterday would have extended the program until 2007.

Officials from several jurisdictions dispute the argument that the cameras are for making money, not safety.

Alexandria officials said the cameras have not made money since installed in 1997, but the number of violations has dropped off “tremendously.”

Fairfax County officials said the have spent at least $1.47 million on the program since 2000, and have yet to break even.

“This is not about writing tickets, it is not about generating revenue,” said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, a Virginia Beach Republican whose bill to extend the pilot program was rejected 11-10.

“I don’t think anybody here wants to jeopardize the safety of those on our streets,” continued Mr. Stolle, a former police traffic sergeant. “This is a simple, simple measure.”

In the District, red-light cameras at 39 intersections have generated fines of more than $29 million since 1999.

The penalty in the District is a $75 ticket and two points on a driver’s license. However, the Metropolitan Police Department says the points are not being assessed. The Virginia jurisdictions do not assess points.

“Photo-red is working,” said David Snyder, a Falls Church City Council member. “It is reducing violations. It is reducing crashes.”

Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, Fairfax Republican, said she was frustrated with the committee, which is dominated by conservative Republicans from mainly rural areas.

“I’m very disappointed with the shortsightedness of the majority of the members on this committee,” she said. “It’s a shame that they refused to open their minds and understand that we have traffic challenges in the densely populated areas that need solutions.”

The decision yesterday comes after The Washington Times earlier this month reported that a state study found a loophole in the camera program that could “completely undermine” its effectiveness.

“The average citizen is probably not aware of this…. but if word were widely disseminated, such knowledge could completely undermine the effectiveness of red-light camera programs,” said members of the study, commissioned by the state’s Department of Transportation.

The study points out that tickets can be sent by mail, but the state law requires that an official hand deliver the ticket before the motorist can be arrested or considered in contempt of court.

The study, by the Virginia Transportation Research Council, also recommends the state continue the program. Red-light violations declined by more than 20 percent in four of the seven jurisdictions, according to the study. However, the study also showed that the number of rear-end crashes has increased at some intersections.

Study co-author John Miller said lawmakers and transportation officials needed to know that if motorists widely ignore mailed tickets, hand delivering summonses could be too expensive for such a program to work.

Several lawmakers said because there is one week left in the 2005 General Assembly it is possible the pilot program could be continued. However, supporters and opponents said there’s only a slim chance.

Sen. William C. Mims, a Loudoun Republican who sponsored one of the bills, said intersections will become more dangerous come July 1.

“It’s a step backwards,” he said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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