Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Senators Defend Washington Traffic Camera Law

Seven years ago, Democratic Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island pushed for a bill that paved the way for use of red-light cameras in Washington.

And she doesn't regret it, even as doubts about their effectiveness grow, cities' dependence on the revenues they produce deepens and voters' rejection of them spreads.

Voters in Mukilteo, Monroe, Bellingham and Longview apparently don't share that view and lined up solidly against the cameras. Yet Haugen is working to clean up the 2005 law she authored, which laid out rules for cities and counties to deploy cameras that automatically snap photos of license plates of vehicles allegedly running red lights, speeding in school zones and hurrying through railroad crossings.

Under Senate Bill 5188, fines would be uniform and communities with cameras must prepare annual reports on how many crashes occur in intersections where they are deployed and how many infractions are issued per camera.

Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, sponsored the bill, which also would standardize the length of yellow lights to ensure they aren't so short in length that motorists get trapped and ticketed by a camera.

"You never pass anything that's perfect the first time. I think this bill improves what was done originally," Haugen said. "When you put something in place you should have the ability to fix it, and this goes a long ways to try and fix the problems that I think are legitimate."

Not so says initiative promoter Tim Eyman of Mukilteo, the emergent voice of anti-red-light camera forces statewide.

Eyman didn't attend last week's hearing on the bill by the Senate Transportation Committee, which Haugen leads. He said he wasn't aware of the meeting.

"Even if we had known about it, why go?" he asked. "Their clean-up bill is, `We're going to uniformly shaft everyone in the state.' "

He's submitted language for an initiative requiring every enforcement camera to be removed unless, or until, voters approve their deployment. He said Monday he's unsure whether he'll pursue it this year.

He wants the Legislature to rewrite the 2005 law to include a requirement for voter approval and reduction in the amount of the fine to "remove the profit motive" of cities and red-light camera companies.

Haugen said she'd fight against language requiring a vote before cameras can be used.

"I don't agree with that," she said. "Elections cost a lot of money. This isn't something that local elected officials do lightly. I have a hard time going to a vote of the people for every political decision. If that were the route that we were going to go, then we would just have committees to put things on ballots."

As for the issue of money, she said, the bill makes the amount of the fine the same as it would be if the red-light ticket had been issued by a police officer - $124.

"We didn't realize some cities would collect more" than that, she said. "I do know that some red-light camera people make a lot of money. That's neither here nor there. I'm for free enterprise."

Haugen stressed in an interview she's motivated by her belief the presence of cameras enhance public safety.

"Truly red-light cameras save lives," she said. "Yes, there are more fender benders. The truth of the matter is there are fewer people killed and fewer serious accidents."

When told a preponderance of studies reviewed by The Herald didn't reach those same conclusions, Haugen said: "I've seen your stuff, and I don't necessarily agree with it."

Becker said she used to think cash was a reason cities wanted cameras.

"I thought it was all about the money. I thought it was all about the greed of the cities wanting additional revenue," she said.

She said her views changed after state transportation officials showed her studies that they said showed declines in severe accidents at intersections with cameras.

In 2011, she set about to put "sideboards" on the existing law to ensure consistency in rules from city to city. She focused on standardizing the interval of yellow lights and adding the new reporting requirements.

"If those annual reports show they are actually reducing accidents then that's a good thing," she said. "If they don't and they are just a money generator than we need to revisit it."

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