BRIAN Minaai, the state transportation director, made a major concession when he acknowledged that it makes sense for the police rather than his department to be operating traffic cameras. However, photo traffic enforcement is riddled with other problems that are so vexing that they warrant installing lens caps.
Traffic camera law
should be repealed
The issue: The Legislature is considering
either modifying or repealing a law authorizing
The law authorizing the cameras includes a flimsy presumption that the car's owner was the speeding driver, making the driver guilty until proved innocent. Assurance that the owner's insurance company won't be informed of the ticket is sure to bring unequal-justice complaints by motorists caught speeding by other means.
Honolulu Police Chief Lee Donohue says he is reluctant to assume oversight of the traffic cameras, which have angered motorists and annoyed some police officers as having usurped their authority to enforce traffic laws. Donohue may be among those hoping the Legislature simply repeals the traffic-cam law.
Cameras are used to enforce speed limits in about a dozen communities in Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, D.C. The traffic cameras have been banned in Alaska, Nebraska, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Utah, and the Maryland legislature may do the same. Much of the controversy elsewhere has revolved around an application that has yet to be turned on in Hawaii -- cameras catching motorists running red lights, planned at up to 30 intersections throughout the state.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, issued a report last year suggesting that red-light cameras encourage localities to shorten the timing of yellow lights to "trap" motorists into choosing between speeding through the intersection or slamming on the brakes.
"These Big Brother devices are not just harming our privacy, they're harming our safety," said Armey, who also has protested cameras used to catch speeders on federal roads in the D.C. area. "This is clearly a case where the government is doing something it shouldn't."
Armey said local governments have tried to use the traffic cameras to generate revenue. Minaai evidenced such greed by agreeing to a contract that provides the traffic-cam company, Affiliated Computer Services, to be paid by the volume of tickets issued instead of a flat fee, even though a San Diego judge had ruled that such a system was illegally profit-driven.
Defenders of photo traffic enforcement say it has been successful. The Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted a study in the Los Angeles suburb of Oxnard, Calif., a city of 170,000 people, finding that traffic-light violations at all of the city's 125 intersections fell by 29 percent after red-light cameras were installed at 11 intersections.
A spokesman for the insurance institute said traffic fatalities declined by 20 percent on Canadian highways where cameras were used to catch speeders. However, traffic cameras have failed the biggest test: public approval.
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PATIENTS' privacy rights took a blow this week when the Bush administration reversed rules that would have required consent before a person's medical records were revealed. The change is not subject to congressional approval and will take effect soon after a 30-day comment period.
Patients lose privacy
under rule change
The issue: The Bush administration
reverses privacy rules established to guard
patient's medical records.
It is unclear if state governments may impose more restrictive privacy regulations, but Hawaii's lawmakers should consider reviving a law it repealed last year when it appeared that Bush would let the federal rules stand. The state law was abolished because it was confusing and duplicated federal regulations; legislators had intended to refine it, but that became unnecessary with Bush's earlier decision. Hawaii's congressional delegation should join Massachusetts' Sen. Edward Kennedy in his pledge to reinstate mandatory consent forms.
Bush, who last April took political credit for accepting the rules issued by President Clinton, had at the time indicated that he would propose revisions. However, the new plan guts a provision that would have required health care providers to obtain written permission before using or disclosing a patient's medical information for treatment, payment of claims or other purposes, such as setting insurance premiums.
Instead, doctors, hospitals and insurers will only have to notify patients of their right to restrict information and about how that information would be used. In effect, the window to private medical data will be thrown wide open and patients merely told that they may shut the window if they choose, not the other way around.
Even the American Medical Association, which had asked the government to make the consent requirement less burdensome for doctors, believes the administration has gone too far. "We knew it had to be fixed. Just to remove it completely is a serious problem," said Dr. Donald Palmisano, the AMA's secretary-treasurer.
Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, contends the new proposal will ease concerns that the consent process could have hampered access to quality health care. Thompson said that among other access problems, the rules would not have allowed pharmacists to fill prescriptions phoned in by a doctor for pick-up by a relative or neighbor. Oddly, when the administration approved the rules last year, Thompson said this would not be a problem.
What changed? Privacy advocates believe Bush was unable to resist the pleas of business interests. Indeed, industry officials cheered. "This is great for the health care industry," said Elisabeth Belmont, corporate counsel for Maine Health, which operates seven hospitals, a nursing home and a home health agency in Maine.
Surely, Bush's motivation was more complex than that. Nonetheless, the modifications will surrender what Thompson described last year as Americans' "most personal of all information -- their health records."
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