Article published Mar 6, 2006
Woodruff considers using red-light cameras to slow speeders

Woodruff Police Chief Jeff Wood has heard the same complaint for months -- too many speeders.

Speed limits vary between 25 and 35 mph on the city's main thoroughfares, but drivers pay the signs little attention, and City Council wants something done.

The 12-member department implemented new shift schedules in January to allow for a regular patrol officer on Main Street. Since then, traffic citations have more than doubled, from 65 in December to 142 for January.

But that's not enough for city leaders.

"We stepped up enforcement and sent officers out there to write more tickets, and they still think speeding on Main Street is a big issue," Wood said.

City Manager Scott Slatton introduced a new solution -- red-light cameras and photo radar. If approved, Woodruff would become to only community in South Carolina to enforce traffic laws via digital photography -- and a likely lawsuit target.

The Arizona-Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., which on Feb. 27 made its proposal before Council, would pay for any legal costs, Slatton said. Add that to the fact no court challenge to the cameras based on constitutional issues has ever succeeded.

The question isn't why the city of 4,500 and a handful of stoplights needs the cameras, he said. It's "why not?"

"Just because we're a small town doesn't mean we don't have problems like large cities do," Slatton said. "And if we can take advantage of technology to help solve our problems here, then why wouldn't we try to do that?"

Decades of debate

More than 100 local governments in 21 states, plus the District of Columbia, use some form of photo traffic enforcement, a stark contrast to 15 years ago, when the devices were strangers to

U.S. drivers despite use in Europe and Australia.

In most cities, the cameras are installed and managed by private companies, which often install the devices for free. The companies collect the data, law enforcement agencies sign off on the violation and the speeder -- or red-light runner -- receives a ticket in the mail.

The offense is treated as a civil violation, like a parking ticket, and no points are added to the driver's record.

Many of the states passed laws allowing municipalities to enforce traffic laws with the devices. Other municipalities took up the technology without state guidance. A few states have banned the devices. Virginia shut down red-light cameras last year after letting a sunset clause in the original bill expire.

In 1998, Charleston installed red-light cameras using a federal grant but never used the cameras for enforcement.

In March 2005, the S.C. Senate Transportation Committee approved a bill allowing the cameras in cities with a population greater than 20,000. The bill stalled on the Senate floor. A similar bill introduced in the state House last year never left a judiciary committee.

State Sen. Scott Richardson, a Hilton Head Republican who introduced the Senate bill, called the cameras the wave of the future.

"With technology what it is today, we're not going to continue to rely on individual police officers to enforce all our laws, particularly traffic laws," he said.

Safety is his main concern, but photo enforcement also frees up officers' times and provides revenue for municipalities, Richardson said.

His bill remains on the senate's contested calendar, and chances don't look good for any movement this session, he said.

Study wars

If Woodruff's Council takes action, South Carolina would jump into the national debate over the cameras. Are they effective enforcement devices or cash cows for cash-strapped cities? Do accidents decrease?

Countless studies show photo enforcement devices decrease collisions and injuries. A 2005 study found that crashes at intersections with red-light cameras in Charlotte dropped almost 40 percent. A World Health Organization report for that year found the cameras were associated with a 12 percent reduction in the number of injury crashes.

But the anti-camera camp also has studies that back up their claims -- that cameras do little to decrease accidents, at times even increasing crashes.

A 2004 study by N.C. A&T University in Greensboro found red-light cameras actually increased collisions. A 2005 Washington Post analysis of crash statistics found red-light cameras in the district didn't appear to make any difference in preventing collisions or injuries.

An April 2005 report by the Federal Highway Administration found red-light cameras reduce right-angle crashes but increase rear-end collisions.

Richard Retting, senior transportation engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said studies overall show that red-light cameras cut traffic violations by about one-half.

"Drivers are much less likely to run a red light when they know there's a chance of getting caught," he said. "It's no big mystery."

For spokesman Eric Skrum with the Wisconsin-based National Motorists Association, which opposes the devices, photo enforcement is a lazy approach to traffic safety geared to fill the coffers of local governments. Better engineering, he said, is the answer.

Longer yellow lights, clearly defined lane divisions approaching intersections and glare-reduction backgrounds on lights hard to spot during sunrise and sunset are all safety tools that have been ignored in favor of cameras, Skrum said. He pointed to a 2005 Texas Transportation Institute study that found a 40 percent collision reduction when yellow lights were increased by one second.

"All of these things reduce accidents, but they're being ignored because it's much easier to place a camera there and let the city profit from its mistakes," Skrum said.

According to the S.C. Department of Public Safety, roughly one-third of 110,000 collisions in 2004 in South Carolina occurred at intersections, killing about 185 people. Collisions related to red lights numbered 18,785 with 51 motorists killed and another 9,741 injured.

Legal in South Carolina?

Slatton, the Woodruff city manager, believes the cameras are legal under South Carolina's "home rule" principle, which grants limited independent authorities to local governments.

"If it's not expressly prohibited, then I think we could go forward, and then we'll see what happens," he said.

Howard Duvall, executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, said the group would back Woodruff in any legal challenge. Duvall supported Richardson's bill but believes there's a reasonable chance Woodruff could survive a challenge because no state law bans the cameras.

"There's still a reluctance to allow civil enforcement of a traffic violation," Duvall said. "A lot of people still believe you have to have the police officer see the crime for it to be an offense."

Wood, Woodruff's police chief, agrees police should make use of the technology.

The cameras show no discrimination, he said, and his officers can't nab every offender.

"Whenever you have an officer out there, you can't stop every vehicle that comes through," he said.

"It's like fishing -- you can only catch one at a time."

Rachel E. Leonard can be reached at 562-7230, or