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Red-light cameras face a long road

October 10, 2009

Legislature has killed previous proposals

The Legislature is flashing a big red light at local officials who want to install cameras to catch drivers running stoplights. 

Facing increasingly tight city budgets next year and likely beyond, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett sees red-light cameras both as a way to boost safety and as a source of cash for traffic enforcement.

In his budget address to the Common Council last month, Barrett listed state authorization for red-light cameras among legislative proposals to expand city revenue options “so that we can deliver services with less reliance on the property tax.” The council first called for such a measure in 1998, at the urging of the city’s Safety Commission.

But a bill to allow photo enforcement of stoplights died in the Assembly in the 2007-’08 session, amid concerns that the cameras would invade drivers’ privacy and that some vehicle owners would be unfairly ticketed by the automated devices. Earlier this year, Senate Democrats killed a provision in Gov. Jim Doyle’s 2009-’11 budget that would have allowed law enforcement agencies to use cameras to enforce both speed limits and stoplight laws.

And the sponsor of the 2007 Assembly bill, Rep. Josh Zepnick (D-Milwaukee), says he hasn’t reintroduced his legislation in this session because he can’t find a single senator willing to champion the measure in the upper chamber.

About half the states – including Illinois and Iowa – allow red-light cameras, which are automatically activated when vehicles run red lights. The camera takes a picture of the vehicle’s license plate, and police then use that picture to mail a ticket to the vehicle’s owner.

In Wisconsin, however, that would require a change in state law, which usually requires police to issue a ticket to the driver who committed a traffic violation – and that may not be the owner. Police now can mail tickets only to vehicle owners whose cars pass stopped school buses.

Milwaukee city officials first sought the cameras after an alarming increase in the number of crashes caused by running red lights, said Ald. Terry Witkowski, a former city safety director.

“In the ’90s, we saw red-light running go from 6% of all our crashes to 12%,” and the number has remained close to 13%, said Witkowski.

That’s about 1,340 crashes a year, costing $131 million in damage and medical bills, according to a 2006 study that University of Wisconsin-Madison students conducted for the city budget office. Those crashes are a small fraction of total violations, which the study estimated at 4,800 a day just at the city’s 40 busiest intersections.

Nationwide, red-light running crashes killed nearly 900 people and injured 153,000 others in 2007, costing society an estimated $14 billion, according to the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running, an organization that has received funding from the traffic camera industry.

Red-light cameras can catch violators more efficiently and more safely than police officers, who would have to spend hours staking out each intersection and might have to run red lights themselves to pursue suspects, Witkowski said.

One of Wisconsin’s most vocal opponents of red-light cameras has been Rep. Marlin Schneider (D-Wisconsin Rapids), a leading privacy advocate who says the cameras don’t let drivers explain extenuating circumstances they could discuss with a police officer.

“It’ll be over my dead body” that the legislation would be enacted, Schneider said.

Eyes on the road

Although Wisconsin doesn’t have any cameras aimed at catching speeders or stoplight violators, plenty of other electronic eyes are watching the roads. State Department of Transportation cameras monitor traffic flow on the freeways and a few major streets in the Milwaukee and Madison areas. Police have installed pole-mounted cameras on some Milwaukee streets to deter crime. Some motorists mistake other devices for cameras, such as sensors that turn red lights green for approaching fire engines.

With the prevalence of security cameras both on the streets and in stores and other buildings, Witkowski said he doesn’t believe the invasion-of-privacy argument is valid. He said polls indicate the public would support cameras to enforce stoplights but not speed limits.

Another concern raised by opponents is whether vehicle owners might be stuck with tickets when someone else, such as a teenage child, has been driving their cars. If reintroduced in its previous form, Zepnick’s legislation would allow vehicle owners to avoid tickets if they have reported their vehicles stolen or if they tell police who was driving their cars at the time of the violation.

Also, violations would be punishable only by fines, with no demerit points against the vehicle owner’s license, for red-light tickets issued through cameras, and the legislation would apply only to municipalities where a common council or village board has authorized the use of cameras, Zepnick said. Stoplight tickets issued by police officers in person would still be moving violations with points assessed, he said.

But a major reason the Senate Democratic caucus defeated the budget provision was that “some people are concerned that this is not really about public safety . . . or if it’s just about revenue,” said Carrie Lynch, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker (D-Schofield), in a point echoed by Schneider. Although her boss personally opposes the cameras, Lynch said, “It’s beyond Senator Decker. It was the will of the caucus,” by a unanimous vote.

Barrett has pushed for new revenue options for the city, particularly for public safety costs. Last year, the city spent $4.6 million for wages and benefits in the Police Department’s motorcycle unit, which focuses on traffic enforcement, budget director Mark Nicolini said. That doesn’t include fuel and other operating costs. Running and maintaining stoplights cost another $3.1 million, he said.

But Nicolini stressed in an e-mail, “The question of potential revenue should be a product of enforcement and safety policy objectives, not the other way around.” He added that the cameras “can’t be viewed as a budget panacea,” partly because reducing violations would cut revenue from fines.

Barrett’s 2010 budget doesn’t count on revenue from the cameras. A public budget hearing is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.

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