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Published: Friday, 5/7/2004

Ohio moves to outlaw private red-light trigger

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - "Change stoplights from red to green in seconds!" declares an Internet Web site selling a "breakthrough" and "discreet" device capable of triggering traffic-light sensors in 35 Ohio communities.

Although it may be tempting, impatient motorists could face up to six months in jail if they use such a device to change a red to green under a bill passed this week by the Ohio House. The measure now goes to the Senate.

"The average person doesn't realize these things exist until someone who has one becomes impatient and causes an accident," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jeff Wagner (R., Sycamore). "That's what we're trying to prevent."

Traffic signals at selected high-volume intersections in Findlay, Sandusky, Tiffin, and 32 other Ohio cities, townships, and villages are equipped with sensors that receive signals from infrared transmitters used by fire trucks or other emergency vehicles. The emergency vehicle is given a green light while intersecting traffic suddenly sees red.

No signals in Toledo are equipped with such sensors.

In most cases, the transmitters cost more than $1,000. But one compact version advertised on an Internet Web site yesterday was selling for just $299 plus tax. While the Web site says the device is meant for a "legally authorized professional," it doesn't require proof.

The availability of these products have police worried that anyone could change traffic signals, either for their own convenience, as a prank, or to create a traffic jam preventing police from reaching a crime scene.

FAC of America manufactures The MIRT, short for Mobile Infrared Transmitter, the trademarked product sold on the above Web site by a separate retailer. FAC owner Tim Gow said the primary market for his $10 million-a-year company, which also manufactures firearms, is law enforcement and fire departments, not the general public.

"We set out to manufacture a product for law enforcement and police at a cost $800 to $1,000 less than what they were paying," he said, adding that his company was responsible for e-Bay's decision to prohibit the on-line auction of such products.

Although some states have passed or are considering legislation, Mr. Gow said no one has provided an example of a violation of FAC's contract with dealers that limits MIRT sales to those legally authorized to use them.

The House bill would make it a fourth-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $250 fine, to possess such a device. Using it would upgrade the crime to a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine.

Tiffin recently passed an ordinance with similar provisions after a city councilman witnessed what he believed to be a MIRT-triggered change of lights. Police Sgt. Patrick DelTurco said there have been no arrests under the city's ordinance, but he believes a state law is a good idea.

"It's a safety issue," he said. "You can't have somebody messing with lights unnecessarily and causing accidents."

A bill proposed in Michigan provides for a range of penalties climbing to 15 years in prison for a traffic fatality related to such a device.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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