04/2/06 - Posted from the Daily Record newsroom
Red-light camera sought in unlikely place
Tiny Pequannock, with a population of 14,000, would seem an unlikely advocate for bringing red-light cameras to New Jersey.
That's why it was surprising when the township council approved a resolution last week in support of lifting the statewide ban on photo radar enforcement.
Cameras that nab red-light runners or roadway speeders can be found in dozens of cities. They don't typically turn up in the 'burbs, but Pequannock Councilman Paul J. Hollick, who voted for the resolution, said a red-light camera would help at the Route 23/Alexander Avenue intersection.
State Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer County, sponsor of the bill that would permit photo radar, said Pequannock was the first municipality he knew of to adopt a resolution in support of it. He reintroduced his bill, A.2064, in January after it stalled last session.
His bill would allow local governments to install cameras aimed at nabbing red-light runners and speeders. It would repeal a 1992 ban on photo radar enforcement, a blanket prohibition that exists only in one other state --Wisconsin. There is no companion bill in the state Senate. The Pequannock resolution urged senators to move on the idea "as quickly as possible."
Support in Pequannock is not universal. Police Chief Brian C. Spring called it a bad idea and said it would remove his officers' use of discretion. Spring said that a camera can't distinguish between a truly reckless driver and a doctor heading to a medical emergency at a hospital.
Councilman Edward G. Engelbart, who cast the lone dissenting vote on the resolution, equated photo radar to "Big Brother" and said it is driving yet another wedge between government and citizens.
Hollick disagreed. He said that photo radar reduces traffic violations. He said that photographing a license plate is no more intrusive than what happens whenever a driver with E-ZPass goes through a toll.
"You don't need them everywhere, obviously," Hollick said.
That's a good point, one that illustrates a minor flaw in Gusciora's bill.
Are red-light cameras really necessary in, say, Randolph? One would think not, but the bill reads that "the governing body of any municipality, by ordinance, may authorize its law enforcement agency to use photo radar ... on the municipal streets under its jurisdiction."
New York limits red-light cameras to cities of at least one million people -- in other words, to New York City. Pennsylvania allows red-light cameras, but only in Philadelphia.
A more tightly-crafted bill would still face an uphill battle, but have a much better chance at success.
Asked who gave him the idea, Gusciora said people in Trenton and Princeton have been calling for camera enforcement for some time. Fatal accidents on Route 29 have been blamed on speeding, he said. There are complaints about trucks going through red lights at the Route 206/Nassau Street intersection.
"You don't want it at every corner," Gusciora said.
While people typically associate photo radar with red-light cameras, Gusciora said his bill would also allow the technology to be used to catch speeders.
Red-light cameras are still far more prevalent, but speed cameras are gaining in popularity, according to Insurance Institute for Highway Safety spokesman Russ Rader.
More than 100 cities use red-light cameras, including Phoenix, Denver, Albuquerque, Minneapolis, Providence and Seattle, Rader said. Eighteen allow speed cameras, including Washington, D.C., Toledo, Boulder, Mesa and San Jose.
Rader said his group supports both the targeting of speeders and red light runners.
"Research around the world shows that the cameras are effective at reducing crashes at intersections. We also know that speed cameras slow people down," Rader said.
Hard to argue with that logic, which is why a total ban on photo radar is as pointless as, say, New Jersey's blanket prohibition on self-service gas pumps.
Gusciora is optimistic that his bill has a chance. It is co-sponsored by Peter Barnes, D-Edison, chairman of the committee that would hold any hearing.
Based on my personal experience, I'd say that photo radar enforcement, under limited circumstances, clearly has merit.
Years ago, walking to and from the train station in Queens, I had to cross Northern Boulevard and Douglaston Parkway. Northern Boulevard, for those unfamiliar with the area, is a key artery -- not too different than Route 23.
Crossing the street was hazardous because many drivers on Northern would routinely blow through the red light. Police would swing by every so often but nothing really got any better.
Then, about a decade ago, a red-light camera was installed. Word got around. Soon, no one was going through that light.
What works in Queens, obviously, might be overkill in Pequannock.
"The police are out there and they use their discretion. They use it wisely," said Spring, the police chief who opposes photo radar.
"By taking away discretion, I don't think that's a good thing," Spring said.
However, it's the current law that removes all discretion, by failing to make a distinction between heavily-traveled thoroughfares and a sleepy intersection in Sussex County.
Police can't be everywhere, and technology exists that -- if used responsibly -- will undoubtedly improve safety and save lives.
Gusciora's bill, while imperfect, is a step in the right direction.
And if the photo radar ban is lifted, some of the credit just might have to go to Pequannock, of all places.
Rob Jennings can be reached at (973) 428-6667 or firstname.lastname@example.org