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Published: Sunday, 6/19/2005

Use of traffic photos generates debate across America


Toledo, Northwood, and the Ohio House of Representatives aren't the only places where the debate about red-light cameras has been flourishing.

Earlier this month, the Cleveland City Council voted to place cameras at 28 intersections to catch red-light runners and speeders. Cincinnati also has announced its intention of installing the devices.

Traffic cameras can be found in nearly two dozen states and more than 100 communities from California to the District of Columbia. They're also used extensively in some foreign countries, including England and Canada.

Minneapolis began using cameras this month. But traffic-camera programs in several Virginia communities will end because the state legislature refused to renew a bill to extend them in response to adverse public opinion. A few states, such as Wisconsin, have laws banning photo-radar enforcement.

In North Carolina, the debate isn't about the cameras but where the revenue generated by their fines goes. High Point suspended use of its cameras pending the outcome of a court ruling there that the county school system is entitled to 90 percent of the fines levied from the devices.

Greensboro, which is located in the same county, also suspended use of traffic cameras until the ruling is made, said Kevin Elwood, a strategic information specialist with the city's transportation department. The city could have to pay $3 million it received from past ticket revenue.

"Other systems are looking at it closely," Mr. Elwood said. "They wonder if it will affect other programs in the state."

Each community runs its traffic-camera program differently, and fines vary widely. In some locations, pictures are taken not only of vehicles and license plates but of drivers as well. As the debate continues over whether the cameras are an invasion of privacy, a safety enforcement tool, and/or a cash cow, so does the number of studies conducted on the devices.

For practically every study that makes one set of findings, there is another that suggests different results. Each researcher uses different methodologies. For example, there have been three studies on intersections in Greensboro, N.C., and some indicate more studies are needed.

One of the most recent studies to determine the effectiveness of cameras in reducing crashes was published in April by the Federal Highway Administration. It used data from seven locations across the country to evaluate the safety and economic effects of the systems.

The study showed that traffic cameras resulted in a decrease in both side-impact crashes and injuries in those collisions. At the same time, however, it indicated there were more rear-end crashes and injuries in those accidents.

A 2001 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is funded by insurers, showed a decline in injury and angle crashes in Oxnard, Calif., after cameras were installed. A prior study of red-light violations there showed a spillover effect at other intersections, suggesting the devices are a deterrent. The cameras also have been shown to change driver behavior, said Russ Rader, an institute spokesman.

Eric Skrum, spokesman for the Wisconsin-based National Motorists Association, disagreed. He called the spillover effect "junk science." He added that driver behavior is changing - for the worse.

But Jessica Duvall of West Toledo said the presence of the cameras make her think twice when approaching an intersection.

"If the yellow light comes on, I stop automatically," the 23-year-old said. "Before, I tried to coast through. Now, I stop. I don't want to get the ticket."

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