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Pierce County: Get moving on traffic cameras

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Dec. 8, 2009 at 7:43 pm |
December 22, 2009 1:43 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Mysteriously, plans for photo-enforcement of red lights at several accident-prone intersections has vanished from the Pierce County budget. It’s not clear yet whose fingerprints are on the decision, but the County Council ought to reverse course.

A novelty in this state 10 years ago, traffic cameras now have a well-established record of reducing dangerous accidents. The City of Tacoma, for example, began installing them in 2007 and quickly saw a sharp decline in serious crashes. They’ve been successfully adopted in Lakewood, Federal Way and many other Puget Sound jurisdictions.

Why not unincorporated Pierce County? Many county roads are heavily traveled and rife with speeders and red-light runners. The original proposal was to place the cameras on major arterials – at four intersections on Canyon Road, possibly, as well as the intersection of Military Road and Spanaway Loop Road. Photo-enforcement in such trouble spots would likely save lives and prevent major injuries, as it’s done elsewhere.

Those who hate them typically say they don’t mind being caught fair and square by a flesh-and-blood police officer – but they don’t want a ticket issued by an impersonal device. Actually, flesh-and-blood humans do review the photographic evidence before tickets are issued. The unspoken gripe is not that the cameras are unreliable, but that they are all too reliable.

In Pierce County and every other urban area we know of, commissioned officers are too scarce to be deployed in large numbers on traffic enforcement. There’s no way even the worst intersections can be consistently monitored by squad cars that are pulled in all directions by serious crimes and emergencies. Even when an officer is pulling scofflaws over, dozens of other speeders can blast by while he or she is tied up with a single motorist.

Cameras, in contrast, won’t let a single flagrant offender get past. They catch scofflaws by the hundreds. Hence their unpopularity with people who think violating the rules of the road ought to be a cat-and-mouse game with patrol officers.

The remarkable thing about Pierce County’s hesitation is that photo-enforcement promised a positive impact on a severely stressed county budget. A maximum of six cameras was expected to add $753,000 – after expenses – to county revenues. We’d like to know exactly who considered this kind of money expendable during a major fiscal crisis.

Of course, the money itself is another gripe of the camera haters. They accuse jurisdictions of installing them for the sake of “profit” rather than public safety.

But net revenues and public safety are not mutually exclusive. The cameras’ very presence deters lawbreaking and helps prevent down potentially lethal T-bone crashes. The money is icing on the cake for strapped local governments.

Think of the fines as voluntary taxes. Motorists have complete control over the speed of their vehicles and the decision to enter an intersection after the light has turned red. If they don’t want the fines, all they’ve got to do is obey the law. If they’re caught and their money winds up helping fund scarce public services, law-abiding citizens come out ahead – and drive on safer roads. Win, win.

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