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    Tuesday, July 23, 2024

    Speed, red light cameras on Conn. streets? Not so fast.

    HARTFORD — Although the House last week easily authorized the use of speed and red light cameras in Connecticut, that show of support masked significant pockets of opposition to automated enforcement of traffic violations. If signed into law, municipalities across the state would be allowed to install the speed and red light cameras that could result in fines for motorists captured violating laws without any human police presence.

    "When it comes to this issue, I've always been very skeptical," said state Rep. Christopher Rosario, D-Bridgeport, who voted against the bill now headed for likely approval in the state Senate.

    "Wherever they used it, from Chicago to Florida to New York State, it impacts people of color," Rosario said. "I don't think this is any different."

    Rosario was joined by most of Bridgeport's House delegation — the largest single group of representatives — in voting against the bill. Still, the legislation passed by a comfortable 104-46 margin.

    The victory marked a successful end to a 10-year effort by proponents to gain approval for cameras at intersections with the most accidents and fatalities. Supporters believe receiving traffic tickets by mail will help deter the reckless speeding and bad driving habits that fuel accidents.

    "I remember driving up to the Capitol nine to 10 years ago to testify on this," said New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, a longtime supporter of traffic enforcement cameras.

    "Every year it's considered and every year rejected, so it's exciting to the see the progress," Elicker said. "When you look at the number of residents being hit or killed, it's an important tool to address dangerous driving."

    The bill that passed the House represented a few compromises. A provision requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets was removed, fines from the unblinking cameras were reduced to between $50 and $75 and the revenue was dedicated to making local roads safer, rather than being placed back into the coffers of the local municipality or state budget.

    Lawmakers also placed a three-year sunset on the legislation, meaning it would have to be renewed after the test period. Municipalities that want cameras must submit plans to the state Department of Transportation and assure state officials that low income neighborhoods would not be targeted.

    "It is a substantial process that the local municipality would have to, on their own volition, determine to do themselves," state Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, said after the vote. "It's not a mandate on any municipality."

    If the Senate also passes the bill, Connecticut will become the first state in New England with widespread use of traffic enforcement cameras. A law passed in 2021 allowed the state DOT to place speed cameras at only three highway work zones at any one time.

    In all, 18 states and the District of Columbia have authorized use of speed cameras and 21 states and D.C. have passed laws allowing red light cameras, while 17 states prohibit use of either device, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

    Not so fast

    The House vote was fueled by solid support from mayors in Waterbury, New Haven, Hartford and Stamford — four the state's largest cities. But not everyone agreed with the big city mayors and pockets of opposition to the cameras can be found around the state.

    Claudine Constant, policy director for the Connecticut Chapter of the ACLU, said automated enforcement is a bad idea.

    "Pedestrian safety is a serious issue, and we all want safe streets," Constant said. "Connecticut needs to invest in real solutions, like traffic calming and pedestrian-supportive infrastructure, instead of putting more money into racist, dangerous police surveillance."

    Constant added "Our objections to red light cameras haven't changed on civil liberties grounds, and everything we've heard in the past year make them look even worse as public policy. We remain skeptical of red light cameras because of the ways in which they increase police budgets and presence. We will be monitoring the bill's implementation if it becomes law."

    Andrew Schneider, former executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, told lawmakers many cities have dropped use of the cameras.

    "These communities have learned hard lessons about privatized, outsourced, for-profit, automated law enforcement, lessons that we need not repeat in Connecticut," Schneider said in written testimony. "They've learned that red light cameras enrich for-profit vendors and fail to provide the promised safety benefits and revenues for municipalities. They're also wildly unpopular with the public, who view them as a cynical cash grab."

    Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut chapter of the NAACP, said the cameras will end up in minority neighborhoods.

    "These suspicious cameras will not be in all 169 cities and towns throughout Connecticut," Esdaile said. "While the NAACP recognizes the importance of traffic safety measures, we firmly oppose this legislation due to its potential impact on marginalized communities and the erosion of civil rights."

    Esdaile added "Studies have shown that these systems disproportionately affect minority communities, leading to a potential increase in traffic stops, citations and fines. This perpetuates a cycle of unfair targeting and over-policing that exacerbates existing racial inequalities within our criminal justice system."

    The National Motorists Association, in a statement on its web page, said it opposes red light and speed cameras in part because the pictures often don't identify the driver and the ticket is sent to the registered owner of the vehicle.

    "The owner of the vehicle is mailed the ticket, even if the owner was not driving the vehicle and may not know who was driving at the time," the association noted. "The owner of the vehicle is then forced to prove his or her innocence."

    Rosario said a better solution is installing roundabouts, rumble strips and other techniques to slow traffic at busy intersections.

    "You can put cameras all throughout Bridgeport if you want but you won't address the root cause because you are missing the point," Rosario said.

    Overwhelming support

    Elicker, the New Haven mayor, said less money for policing and an increased need for enforcement in certain areas makes the law necessary.

    "We are dealing with a restraint on policing resources and, like municipalities around the nation, we are struggling to hire and responding to challenges around violence. So, it's difficult to increase enforcement," Elicker said.

    "There are certain locations where it's too dangerous to pull people over, the configuration of an intersection, and it takes away subjectivity that a human might have when giving tickets," Elicker said. "We try to train officers to minimize potential issues but we have seen around the nation bad results from traffic stops."

    Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons told the legislature's transportation committee she supports enforcement cameras in part because too many city residents are dying in local crashes.

    "Stamford [recently] experienced a tragic loss when two pedestrians were struck by a driver who was under the influence and driving 86 mph on Washington Boulevard, one of the main corridors of our city," Simmons said in written testimony. "Last year, Stamford had six fatal crashes and five total pedestrian deaths — one of the highest in recent years."

    Waterbury Mayor Neil O'Leary said in a joint statement with the city's police chief that accidents and fatalities are on the rise.

    "Waterbury has seen a tremendous uptick in traffic fatalities and accidents," O'Leary said. "Over the past year, there has been a 122 percent increase in fatal crashes. Factors for these fatal crashes are speed, aggressive driving, distracted driving, and pedestrian awareness, Automated traffic enforcement will help to hold violators accountable for their actions, which will help with reducing traffic accidents."

    Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said his city's police force reported 790 stop sign violations and 752 traffic signal violations in 2021, as well as 1,760 incidents of speeding.

    "The officers of the Hartford Police Department work diligently to enforce all traffic regulations and to issue citations where appropriate," Bronin said. "Yet no police force, of any size, can possibly be present at every single intersection of concern twenty-four hours per day. The city also faces very real budget constraints in hiring additional officers and paying salaries that are competitive with other municipalities and the State police."

    Bronin added "Installation of red-light cameras at strategic intersections will help to discourage reckless driving and to increase safety for everyone on the road."

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