Traffic cams have a short stay in Mississippi

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 5, 2009

With the new statewide ban on automated auto citations, Mississippi may be ahead of the curve. With a stroke of the governor’s pen, the state appears to have followed Barney Fife’s famous admonition and “nipped it in the bud.”

Using technology to enforce speed limits, stop lights and stop signs is not new. The first cameras to do so were designed in the 1960s.

But the dawn of the digital age in the 1990s meant steps involved with finding and fining violators could be merged into a seamless process, no humans involved. American ingenuity being what it is, investors created companies to partner with state and local governments in cracking down on speeding and running red lights and stop signs.

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Popular Science magazine reported three years ago that cameras were in use in 100 communities in 20 states. That number has likely tripled since, but people are pushing back.

Local officials sold their citizenry on placing cameras at intersections or marrying them to radar guns on the idea of “enhanced safety.” The citizenry bought it. It wasn’t about the money, the officials said, and, after all, only scofflaws would have to pay.

But a study by The Washington Post, among a lot of other research, largely showed the safety claim was a pretext. The real lure of the cameras was the windfall of painless cash. Indeed, the Post study of 500,000 citations that removed $32 million from the wallets of vehicle owners, if read together with a Portland, Ore., study, indicated the cameras were actually causing wrecks instead of preventing them. Rear-enders were on the rise, the Portland study said, because drivers, to avoid any risk, were slamming on brakes as they approached monitored intersections.

A situation in Duncanville, Texas, also raised eyebrows. There, one auto-auto-camera auto-reported 45,000 violations in one year, issuing citations, it seems, to every vehicle if the front bumper was across a white crosswalk line while the light was red. Maybe 45,000 citations at one intersection wouldn’t be overly significant in Memphis or Minneapolis, but it’s 6,500 more than the whole population of Duncanville.

In Mississippi, many cities large and small had pondered adding cameras, but only two — Jackson and Columbus — had plugged them in.

The capital city’s three-year contract with American Traffic Solutions kicked off in October and cameras at eight intersections had brought in between $500,000 and $600,000. Regardless of who was driving, the person who registered the vehicle got a bill for $75 and an explanation of how to file a protest. The money was split evenly between the city and ATS. It’s not known if the city will owe breach of contract damages to ATS, but it’s not likely because the contract is becoming illegal under the superseding state law. It’s not known whether the people who have sent in checks and money orders for the past six months will get a refund, but, ahem, it’s not likely.

The pact in Columbus was with Redflex Traffic Systems. Though in place longer, the system there had generated $46,000 for Redflex and a mere $7,000 for the city.

Those numbers may have been what piqued Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, a House leader for the statewide ban. His position was that safety was way down the real list of reasons for cameras. Rep. Holland deemed it mostly a scheme for private companies to invoke the government’s name to reap unlimited profits.

Still, police sources in Jackson and in Columbus said the cameras did make a difference. Drivers were more careful. Wrecks declined. “I don’t believe the cameras were the bad thing that a lot of people made them out to be,” Columbus Police Chief Joseph St. John told The Clarion-Ledger.

And the cameras are going full-bore, especially in Europe where so many cities have them that they have become an accepted part of life. Today, there are at least 100 in operation in the Los Angeles area, Atlanta has about 50 and the state of Missouri has about a dozen.

Early on in the camera buildup, at least in America, it seemed there were serious legal issues. One would be the whole notion of law enforcement being taken over, essentially, by a private company. Another was that people accused of crimes have constitutional rights to appear in a court of law and question witnesses. The companies lawyered their way around those rights by decreeing the cameras resulted in civil penalties, not criminal penalties, and by creating an appeals process. No court challenge against the cameras succeeded.

But the public will did, at least in Mississippi.

Time will tell if, on this score, the state is a trendsetter.