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Be on guard; traffic cameras watching you

They generate lots of money and controversy

Published: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST

WASHINGTON – Finally. An issue that unites both rabid Democrats and rabid Republicans: those demon traffic cameras.

Not too long ago in the otherwise very nice state of Ohio, on a quiet Sunday morning with no other cars in sight, I made a right-turn-on-red maneuver after slowing to 2 mph. A traffic camera caught me. A few weeks later, I got a ticket in the mail for $130 for failing to come to a full stop.

After a lot of fulminating on the questionable constitutionality of this injustice, I paid the fine. But it rankles.

My 93-year-old neighbor, who has never been in an accident in her life, seems to get a speeding ticket from a secretly situated, frequently moved camera every time she returns from the supermarket.

Another friend automatically allots a certain percentage of income each month for the $30 speeding tickets she gets whenever she cruises down a long hill bound for volunteer duty at the hospital.

Chicago collects almost $70 million a year from speeding and red-light or stop-sign violations tracked by cameras installed at 400 intersections.

In the Dallas and Fort Worth area, one single camera has resulted in collected fines of nearly $2.5 million. The total of all the cameras soars into the millions.

The District of Columbia collected $85 million in 2012 and hopes to get much more this year.

Safety advocates insist traffic cameras, installed and maintained by private companies that get a huge amount of money from the gross take, save lives and spur safer driving.

Critics scorn the cameras as revenue enhancers for local governments and warn they are often abused. There is a lot of conflicting research backing both sides.

Traffic cameras are just the latest technological development in the long war between drivers and over-zealous authorities who see legitimate speed limits as a way to profit.

So we read with relish The New York Times story of Hampton, Fla. (pop. 477), which has issued so many speeding tickets to strangers driving through its 1,260-foot stretch on Highway 301 that the state investigated. The Florida Legislature may wipe the tiny speck of Hampton off the map.

Hampton’s former police chief, city clerk and maintenance operator are under criminal investigation for alleged financial irregularities stemming from fining all those motorists who suddenly found themselves dropping from a 65 mph zone to a 55 mph zone with barely enough time to slow down.

In 2011, Hampton collected $268,000 despite being on AAA’s list of speed traps. Tickets were issued by volunteers, some driving uninsured vehicles.

In an age of rampant skepticism about government overreach, bureaucracy and ineffectiveness, Hampton, Fla., does not inspire confidence.

Drivers are not taking such abuses sitting down. A common pleas judge just ruled the southwest Ohio village of New Miami must stop using traffic cameras used to collect $1 million from 10,000 drivers. The judge said the camera violates the right of due process and that the village has a vested interest in fining motorists.

Meanwhile, at least eight states have put restrictions on traffic cameras, and some won’t permit them in cities of less than 1 million people.

We would like the Supreme Court of the United States to take up this issue, but in 2009, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the presumption of liability of drivers issued citations does not violate due process rights.

At least by the end of 2014, all states have to adopt standards that decree that yellow lights should have a minimum duration of 3 seconds and a maximum duration of 6 seconds to make it easier to stop before the light changes. If a vehicle has entered the intersection before the light turns red, it should not be ticketed.

Drive carefully, my friends. We ARE being watched.

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