Legislatures debate merits of stoplight photos

Legislatures debate merits of stoplight photos

Opinions about red-light camera technology vary widely, from opponents who think it smacks of police-state tactics to supporters who fear injury at intersections.

In Maryland, the technology faced more debate in the General Assembly than opposition from the public, said Lt. Glenn Hansen of the Howard County Police Department.

More than two years ago, the department joined forces with other advocacy groups to persuade the assembly to allow the technology, which requires reclassification of the traditionally officer-witnessed offense. Legislators raised questions about Big Brother and system details, ultimately passing legislation governing the use of red-light cameras in the state.

Driver's bill

The idea didn't fare so well in Texas, where state Rep. Joe Driver introduced a red-light camera bill based on the Maryland law.

Two representatives concerned about privacy issues stymied the bill by attaching riders requiring each camera to sport a sign saying 'Big Brother is watching you' and charging just $10 per ticket, which would not cover system costs. Driver tabled the bill but hopes to reintroduce it eventually, Driver's chief of staff Betty Horton said.

Besides Maryland, red-light photo systems are permitted in all or parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, New York, North Carolina and Virginia.

Legislation varies in its requirements. A state may attempt to lighten a police state image with provisions that allow systems only in particular cities, require a frontal photograph, require initial warning tickets, prohibit vendor compensation based on ticket volume or lift an owner's liability on an offense committed by someone else with his or her vehicle.

When HCPD launched its red-light photo system 18 months ago, it expected negative feedback from a small but vocal minority, Hansen said. But it has received almost no complaints'even from violators.

'Even if they got citations, I think they realized they were in the wrong,' he said.

Two 1995 polls from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that 66 percent of the public nationwide favored the technology, 28 percent opposed it and the rest were undecided. The approval rating rises to 83 percent in cities of more than 1 million residents, according to the Insurance Research Council.

Information was the best policy in Howard County, Hansen said. HCPD held public hearings, took out advertisements explaining the system and placed warning signs on its roadways before the system went live.

'It's not a new law; it's a new way of enforcing the law,' Hansen said.

'Claire E. House

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