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Published: Saturday, 6/25/2005

The big picture

RED-LIGHT cameras have been in operation for 4 1/2 years in Toledo, and we've yet to hear any legitimate arguments against them.

Moreover, the cameras are doing the job to improve traffic safety. As The Blade reported on Monday, the average number of accidents is down 10.7 percent at the original 10 Toledo intersections where they were deployed compared to the three years prior to their installation.

In addition, even though most of the objections seem to be coming from certified scofflaws - motorists who have been nailed for an $85 ticket at least twice - opponents of the cameras are so far winning the battle in the Ohio General Assembly to get rid of them.

Legislation that would effectively ban red-light cameras has passed the Ohio House and is pending in the Senate. The complaints that seem to matter most to lawmakers are that the cameras constitute a draconian surveillance device of the "Big Brother" variety, and that Toledo, which has since deployed cameras at an additional five intersections, is using them to generate revenue from fines.

As we've pointed out, neither objection makes much sense.

To contend that police officers, not robot cameras, should be deployed to nab red-light violators is merely an echo of complaints in earlier years against the use of radar to catch speeders and Breathalyzer tests to convict drunken drivers.

Those two technologies have, in the main, survived legal challenges to become an accepted, integral part of law enforcement activity. Despite the anger and embarrassment of those who are caught burning traffic signals, there is little reason to believe that the same won't prove true of red-light cameras.

While some of the cameras measure speed through an intersection, their red-light function is not the same as, say, a pair of traffic cops running a speed trap. The remote devices simply record the license plates of vehicles that are illegally inside intersections on a red signal, and human beings later review the pictures to determine whether there were extenuating circumstances.

Of 53,215 violations mailed by Toledo police from 2001 through March of this year, motorists appealed in 907 cases and the charge was dismissed 23 percent of the time.

In Northwood, where cameras at two intersections were put into operation at the beginning of the year, motorists have been given a much greater benefit of the doubt, with dismissals at 43 percent of appeals.

In neither city does it appear that authorities are being unfair. Indeed, most motorists confronted with a picture of their car illegally running a red light simply give up and pay the ticket, like it or not.

Those who complain that it's unfair to be caught by "a machine" are merely reflecting the sense of entitlement exhibited by many Toledo motorists. "Hey," that thoughtless argument goes, "if I run a red light and there's no cop there to catch me, what's the problem?"

The danger, of course, is that such scofflaws run the very great risk of T-boning an innocent driver on the cross street who has the quaint idea that a green light means it's safe to enter the intersection.

In January, 2001, when the first cameras were installed, Toledo ranked first in Ohio and 20th in the nation in traffic deaths related to red-light violations.

Although it may take some time for a new statistical portrait to be drawn, it appears that the city is poised to retreat from that dubious distinction, and red-light cameras have contributed to the safety improvement.

They should not be outlawed.

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