It could be a snap to catch red-light runners
But camera idea raises privacy issue
By Adrienne P. Samuels, Globe Staff | October 4, 2006

Boston could become the first city in Massachusetts to install cameras at key intersections in order to catch red-light runners in the act, a move that has some civil rights organizations on the lookout for privacy rights issues.

The measure, proposed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, would snap pictures of the rear license plate of vehicles that run red lights. Police officers would then review the photos and mail a citation , along with a photo of the offending act , to the owners of the vehicles.

Civil liberties groups expressed concern that the cameras could be used to spy on people, and some critics do not like the fact that owners of cars could be penalized for infractions committed by others driving their vehicles. But city officials say the system would be an effective way to police intersections and could cut down on safety violations.

``A thousand Americans were killed in 2003 because people chose to run a red light," said Tom Tinlin, commissioner of Boston's Transportation Department. ``The scope of this project is very specific. It's to tell people to stop running red lights. That's the only intent."

The cameras would be placed at key intersections whose roadways belong to the City of Boston. Most of the cameras would probably be downtown, according to officials. Some busy streets like Columbia Road and Morrissey Boulevard would not be targeted because they are state highways.

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The proposed city ordinance stipulates that information collected by the cameras be used only in connection with writing tickets for red-light runners. The original photos must be destroyed within one year of being taken, according to the ordinance, which is currently being revised by a committee of city councilors.

Still, the American Civil Liberties Union is wary.

``Every time they create a data bank, it ends up being used in other ways," said Sarah Wunsch of ACLU of Massachusetts.

``There are also issues of fairness. Who is driving the car? The owner of the car gets stuck no matter what."

Councilor Maureen E. Feeney, who is in charge of fine-tuning the ordinance, said she is working on language that would prevent such cases of mistaken identity.