Sunday, August 24, 2003

The District and other jurisdictions are abusing automated traffic enforcement systems to generate money, a prominent traffic safety advocate said in a speech prepared for delivery today.

In his speech, prepared for the Governors’ Highway Safety Association’s national convention today in New Orleans, Lon Anderson, director of public and government relations for AAA Mid-Atlantic, called for a “motorist’s bill of rights” against abuses of automated-enforcement systems.

“It’s clear that money, and not law enforcement, is in the driver’s seat,” Mr. Anderson says in the speech, in which he refers to the revenue-generating aspect of the system as a “shakedown.”

“That kind of thing we find onerous. We believe law enforcement should be for law enforcement. Police shouldn’t be out there to make money.”

The Washington Times received an advance copy of the speech.

Mr. Anderson, whose group supports automated enforcement when it is “initiated, motivated and run for safety purposes,” withdrew support for the District’s automated enforcement program in October after Mayor Anthony A. Williams conceded that generating revenue was a factor in the city’s use of the cameras.

According to Metropolitan Police statistics, the District collected $21,974,285 in fines from red-light camera citations from August 1999 through June 2003. The red-light cameras issued 377,743 citations, of which 253,911 have been paid.

In addition, the city collected $30,331,113 in fines from photo-radar cameras from August 2001 through June 2003. The speeding cameras issued 587,434 citations, of which 408,191 have been paid.

Police say red-light running has decreased by 59.4 percent, with 22,500 fewer citations being issued each month among the city’s 39 intersections equipped with the cameras.

Mr. Anderson says the bulk of the citations are issued to motorists who run red lights by only fractions of a second, and the cameras don’t do enough to stop egregious red-light runners.

“The truth appears to be that we are not interested in just nabbing the egregious violators — it’s the blink-of-an-eye violator, it’s the unintentionals, that bring in the big bucks,” Mr. Anderson says in his speech. “I think we ought to be out to catch the bona fide red-light runners who are threatening our lives.”

Mr. Anderson calls for a restoration of what he calls the “firewall” between law enforcement and revenue generation.

“Our concern is that automated enforcement systems seem to be tearing down that firewall,” he says, adding that his motorist’s bill of rights would be the blueprint for a lobbying campaign urging legislatures to reform automated traffic enforcement.

He calls for the timing of red-light cameras to be set fairly and consistently, citing a red-light camera on H Street NE adjacent to the Union Station garage exit. A camera was affixed at a location on the downward slope of a hill with a flashing yellow light that changes to red without changing to a solid yellow.

The camera generated $1.5 million in revenue from 20,000 motorists before officials removed it.

Mr. Anderson says one camera in Montgomery County was timed to catch violators after a three-second yellow light, while a series of preceding intersections had yellow lights set on a four-second cycle.

That camera, located in Bethesda, recorded 14,000 violations and generated more than $1 million in revenue before it was reset.

Mr. Anderson calls for all citations to be reviewed by a trained police officer before they are issued and for drivers to be presumed innocent when automated citations are issued.

Jurisdictions should buy or rent their enforcement equipment instead of paying for it by way of commissions, he says.

“There must be a reason that corporate America pays its sales staffs on commission,” he said. “It drives up numbers. Should we be seeking to drive up the numbers of red-light violators?”

Mr. Anderson says that if jurisdictions want to prove that revenue is not the motivating factor behind their traffic cameras, they should devote the money from fines to traffic safety and not their general funds.

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