Saturday, January 06, 2007

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

Red Light Camera Debate
Turns White Hot At Council

The one thing new drivers-to-be should never have to worry about getting wrong on their written test is the question, what does a red light mean. You even get four multiple-choice answers to choose from: (A) Stop (B) Go (C) Slow Down (D) Women Of Dubious Moral Character Nearby. But despite the simplicity of the concept that people should stop at red lights, there are still those drivers who feel that traffic signals are for wimps.

With the exception of that portion of the population that is color blind, there are few excuses for running a full red light. That doesn’t mean those who do run red lights don’t try to spin some creative excuses, especially if an officer happens to pull them over. I thought I had heard them all as well, until the on-going City Council debate Tuesday night on whether or not to use red light camera technology.

One of the opponents of the red light cameras was explaining (with a straight face) that having people stop for red lights would cause more accidents. Why you might ask? This theory went that if they stop, the driver behind them would rear-end them. I had no idea that people running red lights were just trying to avoid rear-end collisions. Talk about your defensive driving. I have enough trouble avoiding accidents to my front and sides without constantly looking in my rear-view mirror to gauge the speed and distance of the driver behind me.

Proponents of the use of red light cameras can get just as silly at times. Tuesday night there was an effort to reserve 50% of the fines generated from the use of the cameras to give additional tax beaks to Senior Citizens. Instead of feeling bad about getting a $70 ticket you can feel good about donating to a worthy cause. Anyone wishing to help seniors with their heating bills next winter can simply go out and run a few red lights.

Despite the sometimes amusing arguments employed, the debate among Council members on installing red light cameras in St. Charles is white hot. While there is a proliferation of the technology among cities, Florissant and St. Peters being two of the latest to sign up, the debate seems far from settled locally.

On the one hand, some opponents seem to view this as an unwarranted further intrusion on privacy. Proponents counter that these are acts done on a public street and that only photos of those actually running the red lights are taken.

Much of the debate seems to center on whether or not the image of the driver is captured as well. There are those who feel it must be to prove that the person the car is registered to was also the one driving. Others feel the identity of the driver, and perhaps whomever that driver was with in the car at the time, is an invasion of privacy. It could make for some awkward moments in some households.

“I want a divorce!”

“Over a $70 ticket?”

“No, over the blond next to you on the $70 ticket!”

There have been national surveys that show that 86 percent of the public has no problems with red light cameras. That’s probably the same percentage that are confident they don’t run red lights. There are a few facts that might help you sort things out in this debate.

First, whatever the cameras captures has to be reviewed by a police officer before any ticket is issued. The camera simply allows the officer to be even more certain than he could trusting to his own senses. But the officer has the same discretion he would have if he had pulled you over. Consider it like a referee or umpire being able to use instant replay.

Second, it is not set up to catch people who were proceeding through an intersection on the yellow caution signal and the light turns red while they are in the intersection. They are activated once the lights were on full red and were full red at the time you entered the intersection.

Third, there are also those intersections that are dangerous for our police to monitor. In rush hour traffic, do we really want traffic on Highway 94 to be even more screwed up because an officer is pulling people over for running red lights? What about the safety of the officer that has to stand on the narrow shoulder issuing the ticket as cars whip past? At certain locations these cameras make more sense than putting an officer at risk or tying up traffic.

Opponents rightfully point to the large sums of money to be made by the private companies that install and operate these lights. That fact didn’t escape the notice of former Mayor Shaun Brown of St. Peters, who ran his political career through a red light and straight into Federal Court with a conviction on bribery charges. Proponents point out that the technology is proprietary and that these firms offer a service for which both they and the local community are compensated.

Frankly, I am not a big fan of putting these kinds of cameras at every intersection. But I do see them being useful at our most dangerous intersections. More than once I’ve been the person pulling out on a green light from Veteran’s Parkway into First Capitol, only to have someone put their foot down on the accelerator and zoom past me when their light had been red for several seconds. Their split-second “bad” decision could easily have wiped out an entire family.

The Council is very much split on the issue and a decision to proceed or not is far from certain. There are good arguments on both sides and some pretty silly ones as well. I wonder how the debate is going in Jefferson City over banning the use of cell phones while driving? That’s one I would probably get caught doing. Gee, I hope my fine will go to a worthy cause.