Red-light cameras add to public safety

On March 7, the Mail Tribune printed an article by Chris Conrad, "A stoplight on traffic cameras?" While the article certainly gained a lot of attention, it fell short in describing the bill that is actually before your legislative body, and why I chose to be a chief co-sponsor. I make this distinction because I would not have sponsored HB 2701 if its passage would end Medford's photo red-light program, nor is that the purpose of the bill. Further, the Medford Police Department operates a stellar program, and I would support an expansion of its efforts.

HB 2701 addresses two basic concerns to protect you, the consumer:

First, the bill would prohibit cities that use red-light and photo-radar equipment from compensating manufacturers and vendors of red-light and photo-radar equipment based on the number of citations issued or on a percentage of monies collected from payment of fines. Six U.S. cities (Dallas and Lubbock, Texas; Union City, Calif.; Nashville and Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Springfield, Mo.) have been found guilty of shortening the yellow-light cycles on intersections equipped with cameras meant to catch red-light runners. According to the National Motorists Association, when Virginia officials added 1.5 seconds to the yellow light at an intersection with red light cameras, the number of violations went down 94 percent.

When the Government Accountability Office did a nationwide survey (2003) of photo traffic enforcement programs that received any portion of federal funding, it found that 40 jurisdictions operating cameras on federal-aid highways generated $50.4 million in fines. Of that, $46.2 million was paid to the private contractors who owned and operated the photo equipment. In 2001, the Office of Majority Leader Dick Armey published its findings that red-light and photo-radar equipment speed traps are "a hidden tax levied on motorists" to boost revenue in times of budget shortfalls. Quite simply, when the yellow-light cycle is calibrated so as to be more likely to turn red as you drive through it, revenues increase. HB 2701 seeks to remedy this incentive: Public safety should be our goal, not increasing the profits of private contractors.

Second, the bill would prohibit any city that uses red-light and photo-radar equipment from collecting more than 5 percent of its annual budget from the citations issued using it. Tim George, deputy chief of the Medford Police Department, is quoted in the article as saying "We don't come anywhere close to generating 5 percent of our budget from the red-light cameras or the two speed vans." It is my understanding that the most recent statewide average for revenue generated from traffic citations is 3 percent; however, there is no cap in place. HB 2701 seeks to remedy this incentive: Public safety should be our goal, not generating revenue.

I wholeheartedly support the operation of red-light and photo-radar equipment to increase and enhance public safety, as in Medford. I co-sponsored this bill because I believe taxpayers in Oregon deserve to be protected from both reckless drivers and the documented abuses inherent to an unregulated system. That said, it is one of many bills that I have co-sponsored and it is not one of my top priorities. There are literally thousands of bills introduced in legislative sessions that never make it out of committee — and this may very well be one of those.

In this unparalleled economic downturn, when your elected officials in Salem are grappling with revenue shortfalls, double-digit unemployment, and skyrocketing homelessness, hunger, domestic violence, child abuse, and lack of health care, I view the focus on this particular piece of legislation as a distraction. We face much more important problems here in Oregon and across the country. If we are able to come together for the good of the whole and stay focused on the big picture, I believe we can — and will — come out of these economic difficulties better for them.

Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, represents District 3 in the Oregon Senate.

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