Bill would all-but end red light cameras

Red light cameras across the state would likely be eliminated if lawmakers approve a proposal to require police officers at intersections with cameras.

But that’s what opponents of the automated traffic programs want because they see them simply as a money grab for cities.

If Senate Bill 342 is passed, it would cost cities millions to staff the intersections, according to a traffic safety group.

Dayton’s 37 traffic safety cameras would cost $12.2 million per year to monitor, according to a report by the nonprofit Traffic Safety Coalition. Springfield’s 17 camera locations would cost $5.6 million to staff. Trotwood’s 14-camera system would require $4.6 million in staffing; West Carrollton’s nine cameras would cost $3 million.

It would cost cities across Ohio about $77 million to keep their programs operational.

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“It effectively kills our program entirely,” Springfield City Manager Jim Bodenmiller said. “We would not be able to run the program efficiently by placing an officer there.”

Proponents of red light cameras say they’ve increased safety and reduced crashes at dangerous intersections.

“We’re not sneaking them up on people,” Bodenmiller said. “We have signage that announces where they are. We’re not moving them around. We haven’t placed them all over town, just placed them at the intersections where we’ve had the most crashes.

“I’ve said it before, but if it were all about a money grab, we’d put them all over the place and we wouldn’t announce that they were here,” he said. “We’re doing the exact opposite.”

Opponents say the programs are simply about money.

Cleveland generated about $5.9 million last year and its contractor saw $3.6 million, said state Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati.

Seitz introduced the legislation in May and believes many of the tickets wouldn’t be written if an officer were present, such as people turning right on red and not coming to a complete stop.

“What they’re doing is issuing what I call ‘ticky-tacky tickets’ in an effort to bolster revenues for the devices,” Seitz said. “That tells you that it isn’t really about safety, it’s about money.”

How it works

The red light camera system has sensors embedded in the road to detect a car’s speed as it approaches an intersection. The sensors alert the system that a vehicle driving over a certain speed is likely to not stop, triggering the camera.

A citation isn’t issued every time the camera is activated.

The cameras take several photos and a 12-second video of the incident. The photos are then reviewed by the company that operates the cameras to determine if a violation occurred.

Most cities issue a civil citation that doesn’t go through the municipal court system and doesn’t put points on a license like a traditional ticket.

Under the proposed bill, the officer has two options, Seitz said: Use the camera for a citation or chase down the suspect for a conventional traffic ticket. An officer would still have to be physically present for either penalty to stick.

“We think this will certainly result in fewer cameras and the cities will have to make a decision as to how important it really is,” Seitz said.

A bill similar to the one Seitz has introduced was approved by lawmakers in 2006, but it was eventually vetoed by then Gov. Bob Taft.

Then last year, the House approved House Bill 69, which would outright ban the use of photo monitoring devices, by a vote of 61-32.

Ohio cities use red light cameras to free up officers who can respond to emergencies or other calls, said Kent Scarrett, director of communications for the Ohio Municipal League.

But the proposal in the Statehouse would undermine that, Scarrett said.

“It certainly defeats the purpose of trying to efficiently use police manpower in the best way to maximize service,” he said.

The programs have been characterized as a money grab, Scarrett said, but all tickets generate revenue. The violators are also breaking the law, he said.

“There seems to be a general concern by some people that municipalities are generating revenue by these and that’s somehow a bad thing and that is must be stopped,” Scarrett said.

Both houses are expected to continue to debate red light cameras this year, including both Seitz’s bill and the House-approved legislation.

Sen. Kevin Bacon, R-Minerva Park, wants to introduce a best practices bill for red light cameras, similar to the rules already being followed in Springfield and Columbus, such as an officer reviewing citations and signs at intersections.

Residents are also questioning the red light and speed cameras in court. Several Miami Valley cities including Dayton, New Miami and Elmwood Place were targeted in lawsuits earlier this year, while West Carrollton and Trotwood were named in suits last week.

Elmwood Place was ordered to pay back $1.8 million for illegal fines issued with speed cameras, while New Miami’s traffic cameras were shut down due to a lack of due process.

And the Ohio Supreme Court will hear arguments this week in a driver’s lawsuit against Toledo’s cameras.

Redflex operates Springfield’s cameras and about 3,000 systems in 250 cities in North America, including Dayton, West Carrollton and Trotwood among others.

Seitz is optimistic lawmakers will take action on his bill at some point this year — and that it won’t be vetoed by Gov. John Kasich.

“Hopefully that won’t happen this time,” Seitz said.

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