St. Peters traffic cameras could face own red light
By Tim Bryant
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Monday, Jan. 23 2006
St. Peters has a new ordinance allowing installation of cameras to catch red
light runners. But pending state legislation could alter the plan before an
electronic cop-in-a-box can nab its first violator.
Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, is sponsoring legislation to bar cities
from using "photo radar," or automated traffic control systems, to enforce
traffic laws. Crowell said last week that he may relent if certain restrictions
are put in place.
"I believe, in the end, there is merit to using (red light) cameras, and I've
always thought that," he said. "But there need to be some protections. There
needs to be a statewide standard, much like there is a statewide standard for
Arnold is the only city in the metro area to use cameras to catch red light
violaters. Less than two weeks ago, St. Peters approved setting up a system.
Crowell said he prefers red light camera videos to photos. Video evidence would
excuse motorists who make legal right turns on red or who run lights to make
way for emergency vehicles, he said.
Fines become profits
What especially alarms some municipal officials is Crowell's opposition to what
he calls "contingency" deals, in which camera companies install and operate the
systems in exchange for part of the money motorists pay in fines.
Such deals, which are common, satisfy cities because they spend no money to
build or operate the systems, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars
for just a few intersections.
Typically, the cameras are set atop poles at an intersection. Cars entering the
intersection against a red light trigger a computer to take two pictures. The
first one shows the car entering the intersection. The next one shows the car
in the middle of it.
Crowell differs with municipal leaders who say the electronic devices are a
cost-effective alternative to a police officer in a patrol car.
St. Peters Alderman Jerry Hollingsworth, who this month pushed through his
city's red light camera ordinance, said he cannot understand why Crowell cares
if the camera company gets a share of the ticket money.
"It makes no sense to me," said Hollingsworth, adding that the private company
would be unable to alter traffic signal operations and that police officials
would review the photos before issuing tickets.
Alderman Randy Crisler of Arnold, where red light cameras went on duty last
year, said the public has had "a mixed reaction" to the system but that he
believes it will reduce the number of traffic accidents. He defended the city's
agreement to pay American Traffic Solutions $31.50 from each $94.50 fine
collected for traffic signal violations.
Crisler said getting caught by a camera in Arnold is better than getting
stopped by a cop because photo-generated tickets are treated by the city as
nonmoving violations and produce no drivers license points - and no insurance
premium hikes - for motorists.
"They're like parking tickets," Crisler said.
Unlike the St. Peters system, which will include photos of drivers' faces, the
Arnold system relies on license plate photos only. Crisler said Arnold
officials are unwilling "to infringe on civil liberties" by photographing
He said that, privately, Attorney General Jay Nixon has softened on his
position that red light camera photos cannot be the only evidence to cite
drivers for violating state traffic law. A spokesman for Nixon said the
attorney general's position remains unchanged. The spokesman added that Nixon
had yet to take a position on Crowell's bill.
Sheldon Lineback, executive director of the Missouri Police Chiefs Association,
said his group supports use of red light cameras. People who run lights have no
greater privacy claims than robbers who are shown in store surveillance
videotapes, he said.
Crowell has discussed his bill with the association, but Lineback said the
group is staying out of the dispute over contingency payments.
"Our focus is not on the financial aspects," he said. "Our focus is on reducing
the number of accidents and injuries."
As the number of camera systems rises nationwide, so do sales of a product
meant to foil the cameras, the seller claims.
St. Peters officials have met with representatives of two camera companies and
plan to select one soon. Hollingsworth said a small system, which will show
drivers but not passengers, could be operating this spring.
He said an "intangible benefit" of the system will be reduction of road stress.
Rush hour drivers seethe as they often must wait at a green light as three or
more cars speed through on red, he said.
"Guess what?" he said of the waiting drivers. "It's 7 in the morning and I'm