Legislature opposes traffic light cameras

n However, supporters
say the devices work.
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The Legislature’s collective populism is manifesting itself through its opposition to cameras that would monitor traffic-light violations.
Earlier this session, the state House, led in large part by Reps. Mark DuVall, D-Mantachie, and Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, passed legislation that would, at the least, ban any additional governments from placing cameras at intersections to try to catch people running red lights.
The Senate Transportation Committee has gone a step farther, banning the practice as soon as the bill becomes law. That bill is pending before the full Senate and many observers believe some version of the legislation will pass.
“I have never seen such an emotional issue,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Tom King, R-Petal.
Opponents of the red-light cameras say they are akin to “Big Brother” and are nothing more than a cash-cow for the private companies that enter into contracts with municipalities to install and operate them.
“I think they save people lives,” counters Rep. Chuck Espy, D-Clarksdale, one of the few legislators who has publicly voiced support for the traffic-light cameras. “The opponents never address the fact that the numbers show they save people’s lives.”
At one point, Tupelo officials planned to install the cameras at key intersections. But since those intersections were on state highways, the city needed approval of the Mississippi Department of Transportation. MDOT officials refused to sign off until the Legislature dealt with the issue.
It appears the Legislature might deal with the issue – but not in the affirmative – during the 2009 session.
What others are doing
Other cities, most notably Jackson, have the traffic light cameras. They are pending in several other cities. If the Senate bill become law, whether cities like Jackson would have to take down their cameras could end up in court.
J. Thomas Ramsey is a state lobbyist who represents Red Speed Mississippi, which is a subsidiary of Red Speed USA. The company has a contract to install the cameras in the city of Natchez, but is waiting to see what action the Legislature takes.
“I would welcome strict regulatory action,” Ramsey said.
But he said it makes no sense to ban them. Arkansas, he said, is the only state with an outright ban. He said studies indicate that the cameras cut down on accidents and save lives.
Malcolm McMillin, who serves as both Hinds County sheriff and Jackson police chief, says accidents are down more than 60 percent at those monitored intersections in the state’s capital city.
Crash figures
National studies touted by the traffic light camera industry cite a 25 to 30 percent reduction in injury-related crashes at monitored intersections.
But other studies disagree. A study by the University of South Florida College of Public Health says crashes at intersections in Florida are declining anyway and that the cameras often result in more crashes – particularly rear-end collisions.
The study called the cameras “a hidden tax levied on motorists” and an excuse for insurance companies to raise rates on those issued citations by the cameras.
Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said the system also is not fail-safe. He said he got a ticket because of a violation recorded by a camera in Miami in a car he rented. The only problem, he said, is that he was not in Miami at the time the rental car was recorded running the red light.
He said he had the choice to fly to Miami at his own expense to fight the charge or put the money in the mail. He paid the ticket.
Ramsey conceded that, like any process involving humans, there is a potential for a mistake. But he said the video of any alleged incident goes through a two-step review process with the traffic light camera company and is then reviewed by the local police department personnel.
If it is deemed a traffic violation occurred, a person can fight the charge in court – just like any other traffic citation.
Ramsey said his company splits the money made through fines 50-50.
DuVall says that gives the company an incentive to catch people. He said he prefers the approach used by the city of Vicksburg – rejecting the camera and hiring police officers to patrol intersections. The fines recovered were enough to pay their salaries.
“It is a private company enforcing the laws,” he said. “That is something the government should be doing.”

Bobby Harrison