Red-light camera legislation stalled
Toledo, other cities protest Senate bill
Vehicles pass the red light/speed enforcement unit at Anthony Wayne Trail and Western Avenue.
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By JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU
COLUMBUS — Proposed roadblocks to red-light and speed-enforcement cameras in Ohio could take the flash out of Toledo’s pioneer program and raise new privacy concerns over where cameras should be aimed.
The Senate Highways and Transportation Committee had planned to send the full chamber a revised bill last week but canceled the vote after facing a flood of opposition from cities such as Toledo, Northwood, Dayton, and Columbus. The cities particularly object to a provision prohibiting the issuance of citations to owners of vehicles caught running red lights unless police can prove the owner was driving.
“If we’re going to go down the road of ticketing everybody, why not put in tougher restrictions?” asked Rep. Jim Raussen (R., Cincinnati), the bill’s sponsor. “It’s too easy to issue tickets.”
While admitting that Toledo’s five-year program already meets some of the proposed new requirements, including a mandate that the civil fine is no more than that for a similar criminal infraction, the city is being lumped in with the “bad actors.” Sometimes an entire class must be punished to get a point across, Mr. Raussen said.
“Toledo has been the exception to the rule,” he said. “But if you go to Cleveland, Akron, and northeast Ohio, the torches are lit. People are upset.”
The Washington-based National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running estimates that about 100 cities in 20 states and the District of Columbia use enforcement cameras.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE LEGISLATION
# Requires officer to determine vehicle’s driver before issuing ticket.
# Allows officer to issue warning to owner if driver can’t be identified.
# Prohibits using cameras for speeding or anything other than red-light and railroad crossing enforcement unless a police officer is present.
# Requires cameras to be removed or operated only with police officer present if statistics don’t show a reduction in accidents at target intersections over two years.
# Requires warning notices only during first 30 days of a camera’s operation.
# Limits camera-related civil fines to no more than that of an equivalent criminal violation.
# Requires officer to review all photos to determine whether violation occurred.
# Prohibits Social Security numbers on tickets and warnings.
# Prohibits vehicle leasing company receiving a ticket from paying the fine and passing the cost on to renter, but allows leasing company to notify police of the renter’s identity.
# Requires Ohio Department of Transportation to establish standards for camera operation and intersection selection.
Police chiefs in camera-operating cities argue the changes will gut their programs and invalidate contracts with companies such as Redflex Traffic Systems that typically operate programs at no cost to the cities in exchange for a hefty slice of the fines — 75 percent in the case of Toledo and Northwood.
The programs ticket vehicle owners regardless of whether they were driving. Because there’s no guarantee the owner was the driver, violations are treated as civil offenses with fines, but no points are assessed against a driver’s license and no report is sent to the owners’ insurance company.
Owners can seek a civil hearing during which they can challenge the accuracy of the ticket or argue they weren’t driving.
“The requirement for officers to investigate every ticket to verify who’s driving a car is not the best use of an officer’s time,” Rep. Jeanine Perry (D., Toledo) said.
The alternative would be a shift in direction for the cameras, shooting from the front or sides of vehicles to capture drivers’ faces. Such a move likely would resurrect Big Brother concerns, because the cameras initially were presented to the public as noninvasive, shooting from the rear with the focus on the license plate.
“How many drivers drive with their visors down?” asked Toledo Police Chief Jack Smith. “You can’t aim that camera at a level of three feet so that it looks in every car. There are so many ways that could be abused.
“The cost would put it out of reach of most cities if we had to do all of the things they want us to do in that bill,” he said. “This is a proven system to improve the safety of intersections. It is not a matter of a city making money or making some company rich.”
He said the number of accidents at targeted intersections is down nearly 21 percent over the last four years, compared to the prior four-year period. Toledo has 25 traffic or speed cameras at 17 intersections, plus a speed van that targets school zones. Northwood has four cameras at two intersections as well as a speed van.
“I haven’t really seen why legislators feel so strongly about this,” Northwood Police Chief Jerry Herman said. “The people in Toledo support it. In Northwood, we don’t have people coming to City Council to complain about our program. I’m not sure why they feel the need to address this.”
Chad and Beth Baus of Archbold refused to pay a $95 fine after receiving a civil ticket in the mail several years ago that showed a van titled to Mrs. Baus running a red light in Toledo.
They refused an appearance before a civil hearing officer and have fought an attempt by the city to make a report against their credit.
“My wife was not driving the vehicle,” Mr. Baus said. “We loaned the van to several different people during that time, and we didn’t know who was driving it on that particular day.
“Being required to identify the driver is a step in the right direction. I have a problem with taking criminal violations and moving them into civil court to avoid the Constitution. At the end of the day, when someone is accused of breaking the law, they should have their chance in front of a judge or a jury.”
In May, 2005, the Ohio House voted 73-24 to require that a police officer be present to witness a violation and personally issue a ticket. It moved to the Senate, where it is in committee.
The vote was largely a reaction to complaints that cities such as Cleveland and Cincinnati were considering camera programs as revenue generators.
Cities argue that requiring police to witness each violation would defeat the whole purpose of having such cameras, that if they could afford to have officers sitting at trouble intersections, they would.
In 2005, Toledo received $321,910 — 25 percent of individual $95 fines paid on 13,959 red-light and speeding camera tickets. For Redflex, an Arizona subsidiary of an Australian company, the take for its 75 percent share was $965,730. In addition, the city’s share of fines from the speed van amounted to $64,582 — $65 from each $95 fine. Redflex received $31,590.
“Cameras should be used as a last resort,” Mr. Raussen said. “They should try other things first. If this is really about intersection safety, then we should look first at engineering improvements, signal timing, and reducing the number of vehicles on the roadway. If all of those fail and an intersection is still dangerous, then we could put in a camera.”
In the past, supporters of red-light cameras have addressed privacy concerns by stressing that the angle of photographs does not show the driver or passengers in a vehicle.
“This makes it a whole different issue,” said Rep. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo).
“We’re talking about setting up facilities that could be turned on at times of national emergency or during an Amber Alert. Cities would need to have access to software for facial identification. How this ended up in a red-light camera bill is beyond me,” Mr. Ujvagi said.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.