Red-light camera plan advances
City says it will go forward despite a legislative effort to ban the devices.
Jenny Fillmer and James Goodwin
Despite a proposed state law banning red-light cameras in Missouri, Springfield city officials are moving forward with plans to bring the cameras to the city.
The Springfield City Council will take public comment Monday on a bill authorizing use of the cameras to ticket motorists photographed running red lights in the city's most dangerous intersections. The council may vote on the bill Jan. 23.
City traffic engineer Earl Newman said red-light violations are a chronic problem in Springfield, occurring once every 11 minutes at Campbell Avenue and Battlefield Road alone.
City statistics from 2004 showed broadside crashes — the kind associated with red-light violations — cost Springfield motorists $28 million, almost twice as much as 2004's reported violent and property crimes.
Red-light cameras, Newman said, are a safety tool that would help police enforce a traffic law that's otherwise difficult to address.
"Most of the tickets written for running red lights are written after the crash has occurred," said Newman, assistant director of Springfield Public Works.
Currently, Newman said, it takes two officers positioned at different spots in an intersection to verify red-light violations. And pursuit of violators can be dangerous, often requiring an officer to also run a red light.
In cities where the cameras are used, red-light violations generally decline by 50 percent, said Mark Burkey, an economics professor at the North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University who has studied the issue. Burley noted that it's not yet clear whether the cameras actually contribute to road safety.
A 2005 Springfield Police Department survey shows 64 percent of city residents support photo red light enforcement, up from 59 percent support in 2004.
But not everyone is convinced the safety benefits outweigh the drawbacks of red-light cameras.
Sen. Jason Crowell, a Cape Girardeau Republican, has introduced legislation that would prohibit the use of red-light cameras.
His intent, he said Wednesday, was to start a discussion about what he sees as negatives associated with the technology — granting private companies law enforcement authority to write traffic tickets, for example, or allowing a photograph taken by a traffic camera to be the only evidence used to convict a driver in court.
"The way that cities are currently doing these tickets is basically this: They send you the ticket and you're guilty until you prove yourself innocent," said Crowell, who is also an attorney. "And that's wrong."
He plans to amend his legislation to allow for traffic cameras but also include restrictions on their use.
For one thing, Crowell sees more legitimacy in the use of video cameras instead of still cameras, he said.
"I see merit in the use of traffic cameras, but I also see the potential for a lot of bad things happening," Crowell said. "And I just want to balance the two."
Springfield City Attorney Dan Wichmer said no decision has yet been made on the type of cameras Springfield would use.
But, he emphasized, Springfield will differ from cities that have faced problems with the technology because police personnel will review each photograph before a ticket is issued.
"We wouldn't agree to any system that took away control from police or public works," said Wichmer.
Here's how the system would work, according to Wichmer:
When a traffic signal turns red, the camera is turned on. Any activity detected by a sensor in the intersection will cause the camera, mounted above the traffic light, to shoot a video or still photos of the rear of the car, where the license plate can be seen.
The camera company makes the video or photos available to the Police Department via the Internet. Police review the evidence and decide whether a violation has occurred and whether to mail a ticket to the vehicle's registered owner.
The recipient of the ticket can also view the video or photo online. They can also pay the ticket online, or decide to contest it in court. Court is also where an owner of a vehicle would go if someone else was driving his or her car at the time of violation.
Red light violations carry a $100 fine in Springfield, plus court costs.
Right turns on red, movements needed to clear space for emergency vehicles and other legal moves caught on camera "are weeded out by police officers," said Wichmer. "They review the pictures."
Wichmer said the city would monitor the proposed state legislation but would not allow it to hold up city business.
"The council stated an intent to move forward on red-light cameras last fall," said Wichmer. "We don't know what the legislation is going to do, but if we waited around for every bill that's filed, we would never get anything done."
Wichmer added that he doubted the bill would survive without some major revisions.
Doug Burlison, active with the Greene County Libertarians, said he supports the law enforcement aspect of red-light cameras. But, he added, many Libertarians would have a problem if the cameras were meant to simply make money for the city.
"The risk that they are more of a revenue-generating mechanism than a safety mechanism, that's of concern to us," said Burlison. "I understand the motivations behind this effort, but there does need to be safeguards."