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Seeing Red, and Greenbacks

Use cameras to catch stop light runners, not raise cash

Using surveillance cameras at intersections to record license plate numbers of cars running red lights has apparently helped improve traffic safety in some 50 US cities. That's the good news.

Disappointingly, however, many drivers may also be ticketed even if they enter an intersection when they think light is yellow. The reason: more money for city hall.

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That's according to a recent study commissioned by House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas. The Armey report says 80 percent of such red-light violations happen in the first second of the light actually turning red. Many cities are taking advantage of motorists by shortening the duration of yellow lights.

These police-less systems brought $9 million to New York City's coffers last year, where red lights are run 1.2 million times a day, according to that city's controller. A bill pending before the Maryland legislature would raise the fine from $75 to $250 in one county that's been using the cameras. There are too many other examples.

Increased traffic, and a "hurry up and get there" attitude by many drivers, have no doubt contributed to the large numbers of drivers willing to risk running red lights. But the trend to shorten yellow lights at intersections just to make money needs to stop. Not only is it unfair to the driver, a blink-and-it's-over yellow light may cause more trouble than it can stop. No numbers are available for the number of rear-end collisions that may be taking place as a result of drivers braking to avoid a ticket.

Texas just rejected a move to install such cameras, preferring a police eyewitness to traffic offenses. Texans also worry that the cameras could be used to track the whereabouts of vehicles.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety finds plenty of evidence that the cameras reduce crashes - by nearly 30 percent in one city. Still, most studies on the issue have been done by this one agency; more may be in order.

The Armey study strongly suggests longer yellow lights might take care of the problem. In fact, it says, when the city of Mesa, Ariz., extended its yellow light time by just one second, violations went down 73 percent. The cameras became a money-loser.

Certainly, cities experimenting with this practice should be less intent on gathering dollars, and more focused on the wise use of this innovation as just one way of curbing the problem. The primary purpose of traffic laws and their enforcement should be to benefit drivers, help motivate better behavior, and promote safety, not fill city treasuries with extra cash.

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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor