Mayor endorses red-light cameras

The city attorney recommends against using the devices.
Sunday, February 19, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:00 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mayor Darwin Hindman said Saturday he is “absolutely in favor” of installing cameras on traffic lights to catch red-light runners despite a report by City Attorney Fred Boeckmann advising against the devices.

Boeckmann’s report, which will be presented to the City Council on Monday, recommends against installing cameras at this time because of legal questions that surround the systems and pending legislation in the Missouri Senate that would prohibit the devices’ use.

Boeckmann said there are conflicting studies and opinions regarding how effective the devices are in reducing accidents and injuries.

But Hindman said the cameras have important benefits.

“We’re taking action to save people’s lives and prevent injury,” he said.

The cameras monitor intersections by automatically photographing vehicles that run red lights, producing a picture of either the rear of the car and license plate or the face of the driver. Tickets are then mailed to either the car’s owner or the driver, depending on the type of system.

Boeckmann said systems that photograph the car’s license plate and ticket the vehicle’s owner seem to be more popular because they eliminate the privacy concerns some opponents cite, as the driver and passengers are not photographed unknowingly.

It is also much easier to send citations to a vehicle’s registered owner rather than try to discover the identity of a driver from a photograph, Boeckmann said.

Missouri law considers the registered owner of the vehicle as the operator in the case of parking violations, he said.

But, Boeckmann said in the report, “It is doubtful that a presumption involving a red-light violation would be treated the same as a parking violation.”

The consequences for running a red light are more serious because it is considered a moving violation. This can add points to the owner’s driving record and could increase the owner’s insurance rates.

Boeckmann said in the report that photographing the driver’s face avoid these problems but that identifying the driver is time-consuming. It is possible that some drivers may never be identified, he said.

Hindman said the city would be able to overcome financial risks through an agreement with private companies that operate the cameras.

Some companies install the cameras at no up-front cost and then maintain and operate the systems in exchange for a portion of the fines.

Hindman said a vendor’s financial involvement with the cameras makes the devices “seem like a risk-free agreement for the city.”

Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, has proposed a bill banning the cameras’ use, questioning the legality of using a picture to convict a driver of disobeying traffic laws. The bill was sent to a committee in January.

Crowell said he worries about private-sector involvement in traffic enforcement. He said he’s bothered that some camera companies make money on each ticket issued and that, in some places in the country, the companies decide the timing of the light cycles at camera locations and have a role in writing the tickets.

Columbia should go ahead with the cameras despite the bill, Hindman said.

The city should not allow one person’s proposal to “veto our effort” to save lives, he said.

Three Missouri cities have approved the use of red-light cameras. Arnold has a camera system in place, and Florissant and Springfield are in the process of implementing them.

City Manager Bill Watkins said city staff feels it “might be a little premature” to begin using red-light cameras.

“We’ll feel more comfortable when we know what the legislature will do,” he said.

The City Council will review Boeckmann’s report at its regular meeting at 7 p.m. Monday in the fourth-floor council chambers of the Daniel Boone City Building.

If the council expresses interest in the cameras, the city would be prepared to further examine them, Watkins said.

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