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Sunday, August 31, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 6/14/2014

COMMENTARY

The pain of a long ago loss shows the need for traffic cameras

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST
Marilou Johanek Marilou Johanek
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Buddy was 11 when it happened. My cousin was a fun-loving kid, a Boy Scout with an impish streak, the baby of the family.

Years ago, he was riding in the backseat of a car driven by his mother. His sister was in the front.

As my aunt was driving through an intersection, another vehicle, operated by a young driver, blasted through a red light. Buddy got the worst of the broadside.

He suffered traumatic head injuries and was diagnosed as brain-dead. His devastated family donated his organs and buried their boy.

The loss left a lasting wound. Multiply that pain many times over. It’s caused by drivers who run red lights. They risk lives — their own and countless others — every day.

They’re in a hurry. They accelerate through intersections. They can’t stop for a red light.

Toledo was notorious for drivers hammering down instead of slowing down when they approached a red or soon-to-be-red light. The result was too many needless traffic fatalities. Too many tears.

The city had to do something to deter reckless driving. The rate of fatal accidents at Toledo intersections was rising dramatically.

In 2001, the city became the first in Ohio to install traffic cameras in highly traveled areas. It was an automated approach meant to complement the work of law enforcement officers.

Strategically placed traffic cameras lock in on drivers who are speeding or running red lights. The photographic evidence is reviewed by police. If warranted, a citation is mailed to the driver.

Eventually, the red light and speed cameras were adopted by other municipalities across the state, including Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus. The cameras cover traffic 24/​7, something a limited police force can’t do.

Installing the cameras was supposed to improve public safety through ongoing surveillance. It worked.

In city after city, at critical intersections monitored by traffic cameras, accidents and fatal red-light crashes have been significantly reduced. In Toledo, city officials cite a 39 percent decline in fatalities at intersections since the cameras began clicking.

Statistics indicate the cameras have helped cut accidents, lower speeding, and save lives. But the photo enforcement system is not wildly popular with the public.

Why is that surprising? Nobody likes being ticketed for flouting the rules of the road.

As one who has been on the receiving end of a few citations, I understand the general dislike for the photo-monitoring devices that deliver nonstop traffic enforcement. But getting caught on camera for a driving offense really rankles some people.

They consider it electronic entrapment. Camera critics argue that only a police officer can visually verify that a moving violation has occurred and is worthy of a citation, with the accompanying fine and court date.

They denounce the cameras as a revenue-enhancement scheme, Big Brother, unfair, unconstitutional. Cameras can’t determine culpability, say opponents who want them banned in Ohio.

Pandering politicians, always eager to curry favor with voters, have jumped on the bandwagon of driver discontent. Last year, the Ohio House voted to ban traffic cameras.

This year, state senators promise to pass what amounts to a ban on the cameras, by insisting that a police officer be posted wherever a traffic camera is recording activity. Obviously, requiring the presence of a law officer at every camera site defeats the purpose of automated enforcement equipment to stretch limited police resources.

Police can’t be everywhere. Traffic cameras fill a void to keep communities safe. But the battle to banish them rages on.

In 2008, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld camera enforcement in Akron. This week, the court heard oral arguments in a driver’s lawsuit against Toledo’s cameras. It deals with the ticketing process and administrative hearings available to motorists who challenge their citations. These issues merit examination.

Alleged violators must have due process. Appeals courts in Toledo and Cleveland have said the administrative hearings illegally deprive municipal courts of jurisdiction.

Traffic camera systems ought to be regulated and municipal programs scrutinized for misconduct. Legislation introduced by state Sen. Kevin Bacon (R., Minerva Park) addresses shortcomings in camera operations and seeks to strengthen their effectiveness.

But getting rid of the cameras isn’t the answer. Ask anyone who is living with loss from a crash that was preventable.

Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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