- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2005

One of my favorite summertime games was “red light, green light.” When I was a child, running in front of my grandmother’s Alexandria home, we actually could play the “catch-me-if-you-can” game under the glow of the street lights right down the middle of King Street.

Watching some motorists speeding through red lights along that thoroughfare today, you wonder if they aren’t nostalgic for the giddy game of stop-and-go, where the leader turns and tags you out, before you, in turn, creep up and tag the leader out.

Today, you get tagged by a “candid camera” technoticket, not a chubby hand if you get caught running the “red light.” Oh, if this violation of road rules were still just child’s play.

Unfortunately, too many motorists use their vehicles for much more than driving. The ego of some drivers — particularly those in gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and status-shouting luxury sedans — is unmistakably superior. Then, there are the arrogant, aggressive drivers who act as though the roads are their exclusive thoroughfares and ignore all safety or decorum.

Why do they think they have to get where they’re going faster than the rest? The concept of yielding the right of way has flown out the fancy, tinted power windows.

Yet, the worst offender of all is the colorblind commuter. To them, green means go, yellow means speed up and red means block the intersection. The colorblind commuters are notorious along the gateways of the District, such as Constitution Avenue, New York Avenue and 16th Street NW. But the scary and selfish practice does not stop at the suburban borders.

The red-light runners were so bad at the ramp that leads to Telegraph Road and the Capital Beltway from Duke Street that Alexandria placed a marked cruiser, with flashing lights, along with a traffic cop at that busy rush-hour intersection, even though there are large signs that warn of “photo red light traffic enforcement ahead.” Still, grown people play “red light, green light.”

Do electronic enforcement devices such as red-light cameras and photo-radar cameras really alter dangerous driving behavior? Or, are they simply a sneaky means to generate revenue for greedy local governments who need these cash cows to pay for politicians’ pet projects, such as a baseball stadium?

On Friday, a Republican-dominated Virginia House committee voted down a measure to extend the 10-year experimental project that allowed Northern Virginia jurisdictions such as Alexandria and Fairfax County to use the red-light cameras to catch violators. Meanwhile, D.C. police announced plans to increase the number of stationary cameras to catch speeders. The D.C. Council is scheduled to get in the game by holding a hearing tomorrow on the use, or abuse, of the 39 candid-camera devices.

Critics, including those in the Virginia legislature, say the electronic enforcement devices border on being unconstitutional because they violate privacy and “liberty.” They carry a presumption of guilt and a lack of due process since the accused is not allowed to defend the charge face to face with his accuser. In fact, some judges in the country have prohibited their use.

Others, like AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson, ask if the electronic entrapment devices play “a ‘gotcha’ game of greenbacks,” or if they unfairly target commuters. Maryland and Virginia drivers paid two-thirds of the District’s camera ticket fines, raising the issue of a de facto commuter tax.

Proponents argue that the cameras deter offenders and save lives. Some studies indicate, particularly in Virginia, that the number of citations decreased with the implementation of cameras. Other studies indicate that broadside accidents decreased, while rear-end accidents increased where the cameras were used.

Faced with the growing colorblind-commuter epidemic, road rage, distracted or drunken drivers in and around the city, local law enforcement officials need all the tools, devices, fines and rough regulations they can get.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Mr. Anderson suggests that use of these devices be reviewed. Their accuracy and revenue-generating accountability should be looked at periodically. While police officers sign off on the citations, private contractors usually administer the program for local jurisdictions, and they get a portion of the proceeds. We have heard a tall tale or two about malfunctioning cameras.

We are prone to make errors or commit minor infractions because we are human. The most troubling aspect is the inability and inconvenience of challenging the charge.

A mea culpa: I’ve been caught twice by the camera’s unflattering glare. Once, the rear end of my car was clocked by a speed camera going 36 mph in a 25 mph zone near Catholic University. Second, I was shot one late, tiring evening by the infamous light at New York Avenue NW and the Third Street Tunnel.

Anyone who has traveled those two treacherous blocks knows the timing traps that congested obstacle courses present to even the most attentive and conscientious of drivers (which I am not). I swore that light turned yellow after I was under it. But the ticket said the quick-changing light was red for two seconds. I planned to appeal what I considered an unjust citation, but ended up paying double the fine ” $150 ” because I didn’t make the time to go through the appeals process in person.

Let that be a lesson to all. You can believe that now I’m a more cautious driver.

Which brings me to the real point: We don’t need electronic Big Brother technotickets to do the right thing. It’s time we all grow up and stop playing “red light, green light” behind the wheel.

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