Big Brother soon may be watching you
By Brock Parker/ Journal Staff
Thursday, July 6, 2006
Some call it Big Brother, but local officials said a new red-light enforcement camera could save your life. If it catches you running a red light, it could also cost you $100.
Mayor Joe Curtatone and Somerville Police are currently considering the installation of the new automated cameras at some of the city's worst intersections in an effort to cut down on red-light violations when police aren't around.
"We're taking a serious look at them," said Curtatone. "We can't have a police officer at every intersection."
The red light camera takes pictures of vehicle when they run a red light, and then the city mails a ticket to the vehicle's owner for the violation.
Curtatone and Police Chief Robert Bradley said the city is working out the legal details for the camera system and is considering $100 fines for each recorded violation.
But skeptics of the camera system said the city needs to give the idea more public exposure before it installs the cameras.
"I'm not a fan of cameras taking random pictures of people, period," said Willow Avenue resident Jim Thomas. "It does have Big Brother overtones to it."
Thomas said before police start snapping photos of Somerville motorists, the new technology system should be put before the Board of Aldermen for a vote.
Curtatone said some people unfamiliar with the cameras believe they would be used in high-crime areas. But the mayor said the city only plans to use the cameras for traffic enforcement.
The pictures and recordings the cameras take would not be an invasion of privacy, said Curtatone.
"I would say it's an automated version of a radar gun," the mayor said.
Police Captain Paul Upton said the automated camera works by positioning it high in an intersection. As a traffic light turns red, the camera takes a picture; it then takes another picture when a car drives through a red light; and a third, close-up shot of the vehicle's license plate. The camera can also make short 12-second video recordings of red light violations and can also record the speed of a vehicle.
The contractor maintaining the camera equipment forwards the pictures of the red-light violations to police, who would then decide who should be issued citations.
Because of the visual proof of the violations, Upton said fewer than 1 percent of the drivers who are fined appeal their tickets.
The citations are only considered a violation of a city ordinance and would therefore not count against driving records or a driver's insurance costs, Upton said. The city keeps most of the money from the fines.
"The biggest benefit is it would help us reduce the number of accidents in the city," Upton said.
Officials said cities using the cameras in California and Georgia have seen red-light violations and traffic accidents decline by 40 to 45 percent. In Massachusetts, several communities, such as Lawrence, are currently considering the cameras, but Upton said he doesn't think any of the camera systems are up and running yet.
Bradley said the first intersection police would target with the cameras is the intersection of Prospect Street, Somerville Avenue and Washington Street in Union Square.
Gridlock plagues the intersection, the chief said.
"People squeeze through that [intersection] and run the red light constantly," Bradley said.
The intersection of Lombardi Way and Mystic Avenue in East Somerville could also be a target for the traffic cameras, Bradley said.
"If it becomes effective, we could look at more and more intersections," Bradley said.
The city would not have to pay anything for the installation and maintenance of the red light cameras, Upton said. Instead, a private contractor covers the cost in exchange for a percentage of the fines collected from the red light violations.
Upton said several companies, including Arizona-based Redflex, provide the camera service. The city would have to put a contract for the camera system out to bid, Upton said