Drivers often ignore fines from red-light traffic cameras

Sunday, April 27, 2008 | 7:15 p.m. CDT; updated 4:56 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Red-light traffic cameras have generated a steady stream of revenue for cities in the St. Louis area as motorists caught running red lights pay fines of $100 per violation. But cities that installed the cameras are finding it’s not so easy to collect from those who refuse to pay the tickets.

For a regular traffic ticket, failure to respond often results in a judge ordering a warrant to arrest the driver. But on the majority of red-light camera tickets, the court cannot be sure that the registered owner of the vehicle was driving, making it difficult to issue an arrest warrant.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday that chronic red-light violators represent a weakness in photo-enforcement programs. Other drivers appear to be changing their habits: A sharp decline in camera citations has been reported at several St. Louis intersections.

Because most red-light cameras take a picture only of the car — not the driver — it’s difficult for cities here and around the country to make people pay.

Officials acknowledge that, for now, there’s little they can do.

“If you threw it in the trash,” says St. Louis Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr., chairman of the aldermanic Traffic Committee, “nothing would happen.”

In St. Louis, the cameras have raised more than $1.4 million since they were activated nearly a year ago. But many of the fines are going uncollected. In Arnold, about 30 percent of the citations issued from October 2005 through January had not been paid. The nonpayment rate in St. Louis is about 35 percent.

“Right now, we have no active program to go after these people other than request that they comply with the law,” said Timothy W. Kelly, the municipal judge in Florissant.

Kelly presides over red-light camera court, held four times a month in Florissant. There, drivers contesting tickets face what is often fairly convincing evidence of a video of them cruising through the light. But if a driver decides to ignore the ticket altogether, the next step is typically just another letter requesting that they respond.

Some cities have sought to address the shortcomings by employing a creative definition of what it means to run a red light, or making it a separate crime to ignore the violations notice.

Last year, the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur established the infraction of “violation of public safety at intersections,” committed when a “motor vehicle of which that person is an owner is present in an intersection” while the traffic signal is red.

The law applies only at intersections with cameras. It also allows the city to prosecute individuals for simply not responding to a citation notice.

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