Wednesday, March 24, 2004


Heed yellow light
in using traffic cams


The Legislature is considering a bill that would authorize counties to use cameras to catch motorists speeding and running red lights.

STILL feeling the bruises from a badly fashioned program of catching speeding cars on camera, legislators are taking a more careful approach. They propose to authorize counties to aim cameras from fixed locations at both speeders and motorists who run red lights. Unlike the disastrous "Talivan" operation, the latest version appears to be free of pot holes and worthy of at least a test run.

The state Department of Transportation program that crashed two years ago involved cameras operated from white vans parked along Oahu's freeways. The operation was conducted by a private company that received a commission for each ticket issued, providing an incentive similar to a program struck down by a San Diego judge.

The Talivan program also was challenged as an invasion of privacy because the Social Security numbers on some Hawaii driver's licenses -- an identification system that has yet to be phased out -- were turned over to the private operator. Then-Gov. Ben Cayetano finally ordered the program halted after judges ruled that tickets were unenforceable.

The proposal in the current legislation would avoid those problems by authorizing the counties, not private companies, to run the program. The motivation for counties to use the program to gain revenue is far different from a private company seeking to make a bigger profit. The excessive speed triggering a speeding ticket should follow police policy and be kept confidential, lest it create public cognizance of an allowed speed beyond the posted limit.

The current proposal also would require that photos taken of offending vehicles include the face of the driver, who would be the one to face charges instead of the vehicle's owner. The failed law of two years ago provided for the ticketing of the vehicle's registered owner, identified by license plate, not the driver. The problem is that identifiable photos of offending drivers may be difficult to achieve, and charging the owner may contradict the presumption of innocence.

Placing cameras at intersections to catch motorists who run red lights was part of the state program, but that plan was dropped after the entire program was abandoned. Red-light cameras are more commonplace around the country than speed-limit cameras, having spread to more than 90 communities.

Studies have shown that red-light cameras have resulted in reduction of violations ranging from 20 percent to 87 percent, and public-opinion polls have shown that their popularity nationwide has been overwhelming. Once the Legislature authorizes the use of traffic cameras, counties would be wise to install and operate the cameras at intersections to catch motorists running red lights before aiming them on speeders.



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