State has eye on speeders
Proposal would attach cameras to traffic lights
By Fred Lucas THE NEWS-TIMES
The News-Times/Wendy Carlson
Cameras attached to traffic lights would record license plate numbers of car owners who drive through red lights under a bill gaining support in the state legislature.
HARTFORD – So you're breezing down the road and the light turns from green to yellow. Do you stomp on the brakes or gun the engine and try to beat the red light?
If you're a foot-on-the-gas type, you might want to pay close attention to a bill gaining support in the state legislature.
The bill would allow cities and towns to post cameras on traffic lights to catch red-light runners, who are statistically one of the leading causes of accidents. The cameras would photograph vehicles and license plates, and police would then mail the drivers a ticket of no more than $100.
Brookfield Police Chief Robin Montgomery said the plan could make roads safer.
"I absolutely would support that," Montgomery said. "These would be most effective on Federal Road and at big intersections with red lights. This has been effective on the West Coast, and I don't think there are valid privacy concerns. It's about slowing people down."
The Connecticut Police Chiefs Association and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities have endorsed the legislation. The bill also allows cities and towns to keep 50 percent of the revenue from the camera-generated tickets. Currently, all money from tickets goes to the state.
Typically, the red-light cameras detect a vehicle as it passes over sensors in the pavement after a traffic signal has turned red. The sensors are connected to computers in high-speed cameras. The cameras photograph the violator as the driver enters the intersection and again when the vehicle is in the intersection.
A ticket would be sent in the mail. If the owner of the vehicle was not driving that day, the bill would allow a person to dispute the ticket.
Some lawmakers think the bill ought to weigh safety considerations against privacy concerns.
"I am very uncomfortable living in a world where the government is peering at me through the lens of a camera," said Sen. Andrew Roraback, a Goshen Republican whose district includes Brookfield and New Milford.
But police could be sensitive to drivers' privacy and still proceed with the program, Bethel Police Chief Jeffrey Finch said.
"I'm inclined to think it's a good idea, as long as it has flexibility and local control," Finch said. "I wouldn't see putting a camera on every light in town, with all the concern people have already about losing freedom. But if it would slow traffic down, it's a good idea."
There are 21 states that allow cameras on traffic lights, including New York and Massachusetts, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The majority of local governments posting cameras are in Western and Southern states.
About 180,000 crashes are caused every year by U.S. drivers running red lights. That's about 40 percent of all crashes. Red-light runners cause 1,000 deaths and 90,000 injuries, according to the National Highway Safety Administration.
Last year, New Haven conducted a pilot program using cameras at three intersections and found 870 red-light violations in 48 hours. No one was ticketed because state law does not allow it.
"We can put cameras up, but we can't sanction anybody who violates the law," New Haven Mayor John DeStefano said. "To issue a ticket, you have to have an officer give it in person under current law. You can mail someone a notice they ran a red light, but it won't do any good without a ticket and a fine."
Los Angeles saw a 92 percent reduction in red-light violations in the first year after installing cameras, according to the Federal Highway Administration. In Charlotte, N.C., violations dropped by 70 percent and in the suburban Washington, D.C., town of Fairfax, Va., they dropped by 41 percent.
"In concept, I support anything that would increase the level of safety on roadways," said Rep. David Scribner, R-Brookfield, the top House Republican on the legislature's Transportation Committee. "There needs to be a way to address how some people feel about Big Brother, but I'm sure we can do that."
Similar monitoring of drivers already exists. The state Department of Transportation has cameras set up along busy highways and roadways across the state to evaluate road conditions and traffic flow.
And Sen. Jonathon Harris, D-West Hartford, said there are also cameras that catch people who try to scoot through toll booths without paying.
"These only take a picture of the license plate, and they don't invade one's privacy inside the car," Harris said. "When you balance this limited use of cameras against public safety, this is a technology whose time has come for Connecticut."
Rep. Clark Chapin, R-New Milford, agreed that the Big Brother concerns can easily be addressed. "You can overcome that by posting signs at the light indicating cameras are in use," Chapin said.