Thursday, January 31, 2008

Ohio Supreme Court: Traffic cameras are legal

The streetside traffic-enforcement cameras in Akron, Cleveland and several other Ohio towns aren't going away any time soon.
The Ohio Supreme Court refused to snap a lens cap on the cameras Thursday, ruling unanimously that the cities that use the cameras as the basis for ticketing motorists aren't overstepping their municipal authority.

A "fundamental misunderstanding"

The camera-challenging plaintiffs took a clever tack, implying they should actually be treated more harshly for breaking the law. Moving violations are criminal offenses, their lawsuit claimed, with traffic-court hearings, points assessed against one's license and even license revocation as possible consequences. But snapshot-caught violations get treated more like parking tickets -- civil cases, with no penalty beyond a fine.

That, the suit contended, "decriminalizes" speeding and red-light running, which clashes with state laws, so municipalities overstepped their authority. Nonsense, replied the court. Akron's speeding and red-light laws remain intact, and police can still enforce them. "The Akron ordinance complements, rather than conflicts with, state law," wrote Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger.

Due next: Due process

"This case isn't over," declared Warner Mendenhall, an Akron attorney who filed the challenge on his defendant wife's behalf. Opponents are still fighting the cameras on the grounds that the hearings set up for motorists to challenge their citations trounce the U.S. Constitution's due-process protections. U.S. District Judge David Dowd will decide that in a process that could take months to resolve.

Studies: Camera enforcement works

Studies consistently show that bad driving abates near camera surveillance. One example in a study released Thursday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: Montgomery County, Md., saw a 70-percent plunge in the proportion of vehicles speeding more than 10 mph faster than the posted speed limits in areas where cameras were installed. The mere specter of cameras worked, the Maryland study found: Where camera warnings were posted, speeding dropped by 39 percent even when the cameras weren't in place. Another example: A yearlong test of red-light cameras in two Virginia cities showed red-light running was slashed by 69 percent after camera deployment, according to an Old Dominion University study published a year ago. The risk of a red-light violation at the target intersections was 3.59 times higher within a year after the cameras were yanked in July 2005, that study found.

Don't shake the moneymaker

Cleveland and other cities often deny they use the cameras as revenue machines, but it's certainly in their fiscal best interest that the programs survive challenges. Cleveland, where cameras now generate nearly 120,000 citations a year, collected more than $14 million in fines from its program in the last two years, including $8.28 million in 2007. But, said Cleveland Law Director Robert Triozzi, the cameras aren't about revenue. "This program is designed to make our neighborhoods safer," he insisted Thursday. "Nobody in this town should feel the right to break the law with impunity."