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Vin Suprynowicz

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Last week, the Nevada Senate’s Transportation and Homeland Security Committee voted 5-2 to approve Senate Bill 61, which would allow “limited” use of robot traffic cameras to write tickets to Nevada red-light runners “on a pilot basis.” That vote forwards the measure to the Senate floor.

The vote wasn’t even as close as the 4-3 vote to make “not wearing a seat belt” a primary offense -- in violation of the compromise under which the Legislature some years back made “not buckling up” a crime, but only on condition that police couldn’t pull us over for that reason alone.

Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks, joined in opposing that one, correctly arguing it gives police too much power to stop cars at random, which can facilitate “racial profiling.” Sen. Washington, who is black, says it’s happened to him.

Under the proposed two-year “pilot program,” SB 61 would theoretically allow the courts to dismiss robot red-light tickets if the registered owner of the vehicle could prove he or she was not the driver (as is the case about 28 percent of the time.) But only after paying the value of his or her ticket as a “bond” and going to court three or four times, of course.

The “pilot” program would also prohibit payments to camera contractors (who actually develop the film and decide who gets ticketed, reportedly discarding photos of the police, lawmakers and judges who keep the system funded) based on the number of citations issued -- for now.

These promises belong right up there with “I won’t hurt you if you just let me handcuff you to this ring bolt in the wall,” and -- didn’t someone just mention another example? Oh, yeah: “The mandatory seat belt law will never be a ‘primary’ reason for cops to pull you over. Honest.”

In most jurisdictions where the robot cameras are at full bray, you pay no matter who was driving your car, and there certainly is an incentive for yellow lights to be shortened so everyone makes more money.

As The Washington Post reported on Oct. 4, 2005: “The District’s red-light cameras have generated more than 500,000 violations and $32 million in fines over the past six years. City officials credit them with making busy roads safer.

"But a Washington Post analysis of crash statistics shows that the number of accidents has gone up at intersections with the cameras. The increase is the same or worse than at traffic signals without the devices.”

With cameras at a mere 45 intersections, the District of Columbia now generates a whopping $5 million worth of $75 fines, “easy” revenue which police and the courts have proven understandably reluctant to give up.

The data obtained by the Post showed that at the robot-camera intersections, injury and fatal crashes climbed 81 percent -- from 144 such wrecks to 262 -- over six years.

Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, told the Post those data reinforce the club’s view that the red-light effort is targeted more at generating revenue than at reducing crashes. “They are making a heck of a lot of money, and they are picking the motorists’ pockets on the pretense of safety,” Mr. Anderson said.

Why would accidents go up at intersections with cameras? For one thing, responsible drivers who might now proceed smoothly through a yellow light are more likely to slam on their brakes to avoid being ticketed by some photo processing technician unable to judge local conditions -- causing following traffic to rear-end them.

Indeed, Federal Highway Administration data show that rear-end crashes rose 15 percent at camera locations, the Post reported.

Chad Dornsife of the Oregon-based Best Highway Safety Practices Institute testified before the Senate committee that the assertion the two-year pilot program will not cost local municipalities anything is “false.”

“Local government would have to make capital expenditures and sign multi-year contracts to install the systems, or guarantee long-term minimum revenue thresholds to the camera vendors in exchange for the installations,” warned Dornsife. “They would thereby become vested in a system that requires sustained violations to be viable, and ideally, profitable.”

There is “no form of enforcement trap protection here in Nevada,” Dornsife warned. “The courts have a direct financial interest in the outcome of the cases before them and must have high citations rates to meet the court’s expenses and overhead. If a camera is financially viable, it’s prima facie documentation that an uncorrected engineering defect exists” -- in most cases, that signals are improperly timed with yellow lights set too short.

The city that currently issues the most automated citations per capita in the nation is Washington, D.C., Dornsife said. “Population 500,000 and they currently write close to a million automated red light and speed tickets a year. Over 70 percent of these are to visitors passing through. ... If extrapolated to Las Vegas Valley, you have the real potential of two million or more additional ‘guilty with no defense’ citations a year that raise revenue and provide no safety benefit. If you’re clever like Washington, D.C. and now Arizona, you can set up the enforcement traps to primarily target visitors and people passing through on the interstate. Therefore, many millions would have no choice except to mail in their fines or be subjected to having their car impounded if they ever return to Nevada.”

Dornsife presented committee members with a link to “a recent memo we obtained through discovery from the Union City California Police Department. Redflex, the camera vendor, was too optimistic on the number of citations the system would generate and the Union City Police Department was quite concerned about their returns. You won’t see the word safety anywhere here. ...”

The entire red-light-running “crisis” has been ginned up by a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration looking for new ways to keep busy after support for the national speed limit waned, Dornsife argues.

Red-light-running has been made to seem a big problem because federal Highway Safety Grant subsidies are available to pay officers time-and-a-half if they stake out stoplights and ticket that specific offense -- though many reported “red-light accidents” actually have other causes, Dornsife contends.

And defense contractor Lockheed Martin -- developer of the technology and contractor for the D.C. red-light cameras -- has put its Beltway experience to work, bulking up with political muscle to convince customers they “need” the cameras.

“I wonder how many know that our former Secretary of Transportation, Norman Y. Mineta, was also a former vice president at Lockheed Martin, which was also a political contributor to him when he was the Chairman of the House Transportation Committee?” Mr. Dornsife asks.

“Do you think he had any influence on the removal of the protections against the cameras, or the removal of due process and the streamlining of fee collection model laws, or the emphasis on automated enforcement and the virtual removal of engineering” -- shorter signal cycles, sequenced lights, longer yellows -- “as a remedy? Did I also mention that when the new Bush administration was looking for Democrats for his Cabinet that Vice President Cheney headed, Cheney’s wife, Lynn V. Cheney, was on the board of directors of Lockheed Martin?”

Clearly, red light cameras are all about revenues, for our courts and cops as well as for our giant corporations -- revenues which feed off the blood of actual increases in traffic accidents and deaths.

Is that a trade-off we really want Carson City to make?

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