This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
Those “photocop” tickets for running red lights or speeding in school zones are:
1) A useful tool for getting drivers to observe traffic lights and speed limits, or
2) A “Big Brother” cash cow for municipalities.
Your answer may hinge on whether you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a hefty ticket that arrived in the mail after a camera caught your infraction.
In 2001, Lakewood was the first city in the state to install automated traffic cameras, and they’ve spread to many others, including Tacoma, Seattle, Puyallup, Fife, Federal Way, Lacey and Auburn. The cameras are usually installed at intersections that have experienced high numbers of T-bone crashes caused by red-light runners. Such a crash fatally injured a 3-month-old child in Fife Sunday.
Public support for photo-enforcement must be preserved. That may take new legislation.
Some opponents accuse cities of operating the cameras chiefly to bring in revenue. Some suspect that the yellow lights on traffic signals have been shortened to snare more motorists, though we’ve seen no hard evidence of that in this state.
Two South Sound legislators propose to pare the amount cities can charge for tickets. State Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, proposes reducing the maximum fine for photo violations to $25, while Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, would only let cities charge as much as they do for the average parking ticket – which he says would be about $40.
A $25 ticket isn’t enough to get the attention of people who run red lights or speed through school zones – especially when it doesn’t go on their records. Forty dollars might work. The point would be to rebut claims that photo-enforcement is nothing but a revenue generator for municipalities.
Whatever the number is, cities must be able to recoup the full actual cost of operating the cameras, including overhead and court expenses.
One provision in Hurst’s bill makes a lot of sense: requiring that yellow traffic lights last at least four seconds. That should dispel arguments that cities are gaming the signals. We would suggest a couple other provisions: Eliminating fines for trivial infractions, like stopping past the line but short of the intersection. Or not quite coming to a stop before turning right, when there are no vehicles anywhere close on the left.
The legitimate purpose of traffic cameras is to deter drivers from deliberately blasting through red lights or racing through school zones – without diverting scarce police officers from the pursuit of criminals. If the fines or targeted infractions must be adjusted to keep the public behind the strategy, so be it.