LAW ENFORCEMENT Smile! Wherever you are, you just might be on candid cop camera
More and more lawmakers say the devices put states on the wrong road.
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
In that most representative of public assemblies -- the bustling House chamber of the New Hampshire Statehouse -- there's an old rebellious notion: In matters of personal responsibility, don't always err on the side of safety. After all, it's the only state not to require that adults wear seat belts.
So when a bill came up in early April to consider allowing robotic traffic cameras at the busiest crossroads, mocking laughter from the gallery preceded the measure's demise.
"The idea that we were going to be photographed [by the government] was anathema to most of us," says Neal Kurk, a Republican from Weare, N.H.
New Hampshire's famously skeptical lawmakers aren't alone in their queasiness. Despite continued growth in the number of "red light cameras," an emboldened opposition has cropped up in state Legislatures from Hawaii to Virginia.
Even with their impact on safety still up for debate, the ticketing shutterbugs can be attractive "revenue generators" for local governments and the private companies that make, sell, and maintain them. And though constitutionally sound, the cameras raise privacy concerns among Americans who are already wary of the government riding shotgun.
& quot;The opposition to red-light cameras isn't that they're not useful, but the problem is they're too useful," says Neil Richards, a constitutional law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "This is part of a trend where [lawmakers] are seeing there's a political advantage to not living in a police state."
From Garland, Texas, to New York City, the number of cameras is still on the rise, with some 140 communities seeing 40 percent more of them in the past two years. In many places, they're a popular way to reduce certain kinds of accidents -- mostly side-impact or T-bone collisions -- and discourage red-light runners, particularly on packed urban crossroads. More than 300,000 red-light violations were issued in New York in 2003, and traffic deaths dropped in the city from 701 in 1990 & szlig;to 344 13 years later.
Here in Raleigh, by some measures, total traffic accidents have gone down 25 percent at some half-dozen intersections. Urban lawmakers, backed by numerous police chiefs, say red-light running has become a pandemic -- and cameras are a legitimate antidote.
Numerous courts have ruled that there's no expectation of personal privacy upon a public road," says Chris Galm, spokesman for a camera-industry group called National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running. "The point is to modify their driving habits."
Yet despite the cameras' impact, a growing number of lawmakers say the devices put states on the wrong road. In the past few weeks, New Hampshire, Virginia and Indiana have all moved to ban or limit their use, after failed attempts to introduce the cameras to Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri and West Virginia last year. Even in New York, the city council has capped the number of cameras at 50. Critics cite privacy concerns, worries about a "money grab" by private companies and studies showing that while T-bone accidents are reduced, the numbers of rear-end accidents tend to rise as motorists slam on their brakes to avoid tickets.
In Virginia, where cameras have been clicking for 10 years, a sunset clause in the original bill meant the pilot program came back up for a vote this year. The bill was not renewed, and dozens of cameras will be shut down July 1.