WHAT OTHERS SAY: Turn the red-light camera debate back to safety

Thursday, November 28, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CST

Terry Branstad, the governor of Iowa, is on to something.

The Republican governor to the north is proposing that the state step back from its love affair with speed and red-light cameras.

Call it a break, not a breakup.

The governor has asked his transportation director to develop rules that make sure the cameras are being used primarily as a safety tool, not merely a revenue source for cash-starved municipalities.

Here in St. Louis, we know that scam well.

In north St. Louis County, in particular, municipalities that wouldn’t exist without revenue from speeders put up the cameras along major thoroughfares, including Interstate 70, to catch unsuspecting drivers and hit them with $100 fines.

And numerous cities in the region, from St. Louis to St. Peters to Ellisville to Arnold, have installed the red-light cameras, which often end up fining the owner of a car even when he or she wasn’t the one driving the vehicle.

As in Iowa, those with a conservative political bent have raised constitutional concerns with the cameras in the Show-Me State, and recently, they won a big victory.

This month, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District ruled that Ellisville’s red-light camera law was in violation of state statute because it punished the owner of the vehicle and not necessarily the driver. Shortly before that decision, a St. Peters judge tossed a red-light camera ticket because the fines in that city don’t come with penalty points against a driver’s record as other moving violations in state law do.

There are those in both Iowa and Missouri who would like to ban the cameras entirely.

That’s not going to happen, nor should it.

There are cases in which the cameras — particularly the red-light cameras — do provide a safety purpose.

Yes, companies like American Traffic Solutions make a boatload of money off the technology. They wouldn’t be spending a fortune on high-priced attorneys, public relations professionals and lobbyists if the cameras weren’t cash cows. In St. Louis, you can’t toss a stone without hitting a former employee of former U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt who hasn’t fed at that trough.

But the bottom line remains this: Most people getting tickets broke the law.

You shouldn’t run red lights. You shouldn’t speed. The prevalence of cameras does serve as a deterrent.

If safety truly is the goal, however, the approach being suggested by Mr. Branstad (who, of course, is running for re-election) is a reasonable one.

It’s not much different from the approach taken by St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, a Republican, and a group of African-American pastors from north St. Louis County. During the last session of the Missouri legislature, they pushed for a bill that passed limiting the amount of revenue municipalities can collect from such cameras.

Of course, there were already higher limits in place and they were ignored. And the cities have sued to block the law.

Safety first?

No, this is and always has been primarily about money.

With the appeals court ruling in Missouri, the issue of red-light and speed-cameras is ripe for some more debate in the Missouri legislature. The cameras are not going to go away, but putting reasonable and enforceable limits in place that require safety to be the primary objective is an approach that makes sense.

The proposed new rules in Iowa, for instance, require other “engineering and enforcement” solutions to be tried first. And municipalities would have to justify the renewal of the cameras each year.

If safety truly is the primary concern, tightening up the rules governing the use of such cameras seems a reasonable compromise.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission. 

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