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Journal Times editorial: Pump the brakes on red-light cameras
Our Perspective

Journal Times editorial: Pump the brakes on red-light cameras

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As much as we like to see bipartisanship in our often politically fractured state Legislature, the hairs on our neck went up a bit when we read about the joint sponsorship by Republicans and Democrats on a bill to test the waters for red-light cameras and automatic traffic enforcement.

Currently, Wisconsin is one of more than a dozen states that bans the automated camera systems that monitor roads and intersections and automatically enforce speed limit and red-light violations at signaled intersections by sending vehicle owners citations in the mail.

But legislation backed by three state senators and 19 representatives proposes to allow a five-year test of the controversial automated speed enforcement system (ASES) in the City of Milwaukee.

The test would likely involve about 40 cameras on poles at high-risk intersections and mobile speed traps that would ticket drivers going more than 20 mph over the posted speed limit, according to earlier news reports.

The legislative sponsors argue the bill is needed to promote road safety. “Excessive speeding, red light running and disregarded traffic rules has created unsafe roads throughout our city,” the sponsors wrote in a joint statement, “As a community, we deserve to feel safe on our roads.”

Yeah, who could be against road safety?

Well, for starters, there are those who argue municipalities just use the automated systems as a revenue generator. In Chicago, for instance, an ASES system has plumped the coffers of the city by more than $600 million in red light fines since it was implemented in 2004. It has also resulted in formation of a citizens group to abolish the camera system in the city and a $40 million class action lawsuit over unfair ticket notices that is in the process of being settled.

Similar situations and public objections have resulted in some cities abandoning the camera ticketing and, in fact, the number of cities using automated ticketing has dropped from 540 municipalities to 421 in the past seven years.

Perhaps the Milwaukee “test,” if given approval and enacted by the city, would provide good data on the impact on accident rates. Right now that data is all over the boards.

The Centers for Disease Control says automated enforcement can cut speeding by 1% to 15% and that crashes decline by 8% percent to 49%.

But other studies — such as one by the Virginia Department of Transportation in 2005 — have shown that the number of right angle crashes declined, but the number of rear-end crashes went up, as did the overall number of crashes at intersections. A study in Winnipeg, Canada found that crashes increased significantly after the deployment of red light cameras.

That’s of course to be expected, since we know that some drivers will slam on the brakes when the light turns yellow rather risk getting a camera-generated ticked for running the red. And pity you if you’re in Car No. 2.

Other public protests over ASES systems have focused on the red light or speeding tickets being issued to the owner of a car — even if they were not behind the wheel when the infraction occurred. That practice has been upheld by U.S. Circuit Appeals Courts.

And, yes, the proposed Milwaukee bill has just such a provision, saying “it is not a defense to a violation of this section that the owner was not operating the vehicle at the time of the violation.”

There are exceptions, of course. If your car was stolen and you report it within seven business days of the violation, it will be forgiven. Or, if the owner of the car provides a traffic officer with the name and address of the person who was operating the vehicle at the time of the violation and that person admits it, they will be charged, instead. In some states this is known as a “snitch ticket”.

These are some of the muddy waters the Milwaukee “test” is wading into with automatic speeding and red light enforcement ticketing.

Make no mistake about it, if the five-year Milwaukee “test” is deemed to be successful, it will be coming to a stoplight and roadway near you very soon. This bill deserves a very big yellow light.


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