Red-light cameras, designed to catch drivers who run red lights, have been developing some value in the cities around the Northwest which have taken to using them. Red-light runners are menaces on the road, and these catchers have some safety utility. Problems arise when they're used not for safety but as ATMs.
This space has ranted no lack of times about the trouble inherent in letting a government agency - whether law enforcement or something else - build its budget off regulatory fines. We're also highly skeptical of any place in public law enforcement for private corporations: The temptation to hand people fines or to lock them up to boost the quarterly bottom line is just too great.
A measure in the Oregon Legislature, House Bill 2701, is aimed at exactly this point. Ashland Senator Alan Bates has been its prime sponsor in the Senate.
Medford, which is part of his district turf, has a red-light camera program, and Bates said that "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." He said he is backing it because:
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.
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.
The bill isn't moving fast; it's still in House committee. But there's still plenty of time.