Research group urges caution in deploying red-light cameras

Lawmakers urged to ensure safety, not profit, is motive

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On the heels of the state Senate's passage of a bill allowing red-light enforcement cameras in Pittsburgh and 18 other cities, a public interest group has warned against using the cameras as cash cows rather than to promote safety.

The Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group, in a 52-page report issued Thursday, said private for-profit companies are lobbying government officials to install the cameras and, in some cases, safety issues are taking a back seat to profit motives.

"We need to make sure we're protecting the public as this goes forward," said PennPIRG program associate Alana Miller.

The legislation that the Senate passed in a 35-14 vote Tuesday, and a similar measure pending in the House, appear to have safeguards addressing many of the concerns raised in the PennPIRG report.

The legislation does not allow cities to keep the income generated by red-light citations. The money goes to the state and is redistributed for transportation safety enhancements.

Rep. Paul Costa, D-Wilkins, sponsor of the House bill, which is pending in the Transportation Committee, said it will require Pennsylvania Department of Transportation approval at each intersection before cameras are deployed. That, he said, will ensure that cities use the cameras where genuine safety hazards exist.

The systems use sensors in the pavement to detect when a vehicle enters an intersection after the light has turned red. If that happens, an overhead camera takes a photo of the license plate and generates a citation that is mailed to the car's owner.

The Senate and House bills authorize fines up to $100. No points are issued, and violations cannot be considered in ratings for car insurance.

At present, only Philadelphia is allowed to use red-light cameras, under a pilot program begun in 2005. The cameras are at 19 intersections and generated 141,571 citations in the year ending March 31.

"Local contracting for automated traffic enforcement systems may sometimes be a useful tool for keeping drivers and pedestrians safe. But when private firms and municipalities consider revenues first, and safety second, the public interest is threatened," PennPIRG said.

It said nearly 700 jurisdictions in 25 states have signed contracts with for-profit companies to install the cameras. Some of the contracts pay the companies on a per-ticket basis, give the companies veto power over locations and include penalties if the municipality tries to cancel them. It urged municipalities not to include incentives in the contracts, to maintain control over enforcement policies and to ensure that the contracting process is open and includes public participation.

Pennsylvania's legislation prohibits payments to camera vendors based on the number of citations or a percentage of fines. It also bans another practice that has drawn criticism elsewhere -- shortening the yellow-light time to create more violations.

Signs must be posted on approaches to intersections warning drivers that red-light cameras are in use.

Cities that would be authorized to use the cameras under the Senate bill include McKeesport, New Castle, Johnstown, Erie and Altoona.

Its sponsor, Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, cited an estimate by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that red-light running killed 676 people and injured 113,000 in the U.S. in 2009. Critics cite other studies that say the cameras do not reduce crashes or they even increase accidents by causing drivers to stop suddenly, triggering rear-end collisions.

Ms. Miller of PennPIRG said the group has not taken a position on the Pennsylvania legislation. Its report, "Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead," can be viewed at www.pennpirg.org/report.


Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868.


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