Lawmakers to again consider cameras at red lights

Hartford - A bill to allow red-light enforcement cameras in large and medium-sized cities is ready to cycle through the state legislature again this year.

Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, announced last week that he will reintroduce the legislation in the General Assembly session beginning Feb. 8.

The measure would enable cities with 60,000 or more residents to install automated cameras at intersections and mail fines of at least $124 to traffic violators caught on camera. Two dozen states and the District of Columbia already allow them. Yet 15 states have reportedly banned red-light cameras.

The controversial legislation made it through two committees last year before fizzling out in the judiciary committee without a vote. Looney and many New Haven civic leaders are hoping for a different outcome in 2012.

Camera proponents say the devices improve motorist behavior and reduce the number of traffic accidents caused by drivers running red lights. They also would produce a new stream of government revenue in the form of additional traffic fines.

Opponents cite concerns about privacy, fairness and the possibility of cities relinquishing control over public policy decisions to companies that install and operate the cameras.

The population requirement would rule out introducing cameras to any southeastern Connecticut communities, but local residents could still find themselves driving through one of the 13 cities that would become eligible to install them if the bill passes.

Lawmakers might also decide to someday lower the 60,000-resident minimum or authorize the cameras at any intersection.

"Do red-light cameras really enhance public safety, or is this just another way to pick people's pockets?" said state Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, who voted against the bill last year in the transportation committee.

The Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated that a single camera could collect anywhere from $316,000 to $1.6 million a year for state and local governments, depending on the number of violations issued and the percentage of each fine that governments get to keep.

The company that operates the cameras would be entitled to a percentage of the fines.

State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, co-chairman of the transportation committee, said he plans to raise the red-light cameras bill again this year at Looney's request.

Maynard said he personally supports the legislation and hopes that a camera program can help New Haven address "an almost chronic disregard for red lights" that endangers pedestrians and bicyclists as well as motorists.

"This is only enabling legislation," Maynard said. "We're not requiring anyone to use them. We're simply saying that if you, as city fathers, feel this problem is bad enough ... go right ahead."

Jutila said he is still unconvinced that red-light cameras bring significant improvements to public safety. He noted how multiple traffic studies have found a decrease in right-angle or "T-bone" crashes at intersections with cameras, yet an increase in rear-end crashes due to motorists slamming on the brakes to avoid tickets.

In addition, Jutila said he has heard from a number of constituents opposed to the cameras. State Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, also voted against the bill last year in the transportation committee. Stillman did not return a call seeking comment.

State Rep. Steve Mikutel, D-Griswold, voted for it at the transportation committee.

He said the population minimum is key, as red-light cameras are best suited for heavily trafficked urban intersections, particularly those where motorists haven't been obeying the light.

"I'm not a proponent of putting red-light cameras in every community," Mikutel said. "The data doesn't warrant it."

Looney said the population minimum was added to the bill because only larger communities have shown interest in the cameras. "Obviously, if there was a groundswell of interest from smaller communities, the bill could be adjusted to reflect that."

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recently spoke in favor of permitting red-light cameras in Connecticut and suggested setting a lower fine for traffic violators caught by cameras than by police officers.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut has opposed every red-light camera bill in the legislature in recent years. Executive Director Andrew Schneider said it is unfair that a ticketed driver doesn't get an opportunity to explain to an officer any extenuating circumstance, such as a need to move out of the way for an ambulance.

He also referenced how two Tennessee municipalities were sued last year by red-light camera companies after the state legislature outlawed automatic ticketing for improper turns on red. The companies claim the law violates revenue agreements they had with the municipalities and want to see it reversed.

"These camera companies are trying to control public policy," Schneider said.

The latest red-light cameras take video footage of vehicles running red lights or speeding through an intersection. The registered owner of such a vehicle receives a ticket in the mail, along with photos of his or her vehicle running the light and an Internet link to the video clip.

Under last year's bill, owners would have 30 days to contest or pay the ticket.

Looney emphasized that his legislation requires posting signs in front of every intersection that would get a camera.

"So it isn't as if we're trying to play gotcha here," Looney said. "If everybody pays attention to the sign, very few will then be caught by the camera."

j.reindl@theday.com

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