Wednesday, February 2, 2005

A loophole in Virginia’s law on red-light cameras that states a summons must be hand-delivered to a motorist threatens to “completely undermine” the program, according to a new study.

“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.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Whittington W. Clement ordered the $95,000 study in time for lawmakers in the 2005 General Assembly to debate amending and expanding the law on traffic cameras, which expires in July.

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.

Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Fairfax Republican, said the loophole was a “silly provision,” despite his overall opposition to the cameras.

“I don’t want to induce ridiculous work on the police,” he said.

Mr. Cuccinelli also said the cameras are showing up in Virginia “all over the place” and that a good alternative would be for jurisdictions to extend their yellow lights by 1 seconds to reduce red-light running.

The study recommends closing the loophole and states: “Personal service on all violators is obviously an expensive proposition, involving many staff hours of time, and would defeat one of the primary motivating factors for employing automated detection systems in the first place: a reduction in the number of live officers required to enforce red-light laws.”

The state Senate approved a bill last month that would allow Virginia towns to operate the cameras. The senators also passed a bill to extend by two years existing programs in seven jurisdictions — Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax counties, Fairfax City, Falls Church, Vienna and Virginia Beach.

The fine in Virginia is $50, but no points are added to a driver’s license. D.C. law calls for a $75 ticket with two points assessed to a license. However, the points are not being assessed, according to the Metropolitan Police Department.

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

In Fairfax County, for example, the study found that eight of the 13 intersections with cameras had more injury-related crashes.

Police officials said yesterday that they have made no major lobbying efforts to close the loophole, in part because they’ve had no serious problems with motorists’ ignoring tickets sent by mail.

Officer Melissa Borja of the Vienna Police Department said most violators pay, but acknowledged that the law lacks “real teeth.”

“It’s like a parking ticket,” she said. “It’s more time-consuming and costly to pursue somebody who doesn’t pay.”

In Falls Church, Capt. Daniel Ellis said the police department mails four notices before dispatching an officer to track down motorists who do not pay tickets they receive in the mail.

Capt. Ellis also said department officials have no opinion on whether the law should be altered.

“We’ll do it whatever way the state tells us to do it,” he said. “It’s time-consuming, but we want to make sure that once you’ve gotten four notices, you pay. We don’t have that big of a problem right now. Most people pay when they get the first notice.”

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