In the news

Jon Schmitz

A public interest group today issued a report recommending that governments exercise caution in deploying automated red-light enforcement cameras at intersections.

The Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group said private companies increasingly are lobbying government officials to install the cameras and that in some cases, safety issues are taking a back seat to profit motives.

"Local contracting for automated traffic enforcement systems may sometimes be a useful tool for keeping drivers and pedestrians safe. But when private firms and municipalities consider revenues first, and safety second, the public interest is threatened," the group said.

The systems use sensors in the pavement to detect when a vehicle enters an intersection after the light has turned red. If it does, an overhead camera takes a photo of the license plate and generates a citation that is mailed to the car's owner.

The Pennsylvania Senate on Tuesday approved legislation that would expand red-light camera enforcement, currently legal only in Philadelphia, to Pittsburgh and all third-class cities with populations of 18,000 or more and full-time police forces. Cities that would be authorized to have cameras include Erie, Altoona, New Castle, Johnstown and McKeesport.

A similar bill is pending in the House Transportation Committee, which plans to hold a public hearing next month.

PennPIRG said nearly 700 jurisdictions have signed contracts with for-profit companies to install the cameras. Some of the contracts pay the company on a per-ticket basis, give the company veto power over locations and include penalties if the municipality tries to cancel them. It urged municipalities not to include incentives in the contracts, to maintain control over enforcement policies and ensure that the contracting process is open and includes public participation.

State Rep. Paul Costa, D-Wilkins, sponsor of the House legislation, has said it will contain a provision requiring PennDOT approval before cameras are installed at any intersection. That, he said, will ensure that the cities use the cameras to improve safety, not to generate revenue.

Both the House and Senate bills require income from the cameras to be returned to the state and used for transportation safety improvements. They also require conspicuous signs warning drivers that cameras are in place.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says its study showed a 24 percent decline in fatalities from red-light running in cities where the cameras are used, and reductions of 40 to 96 percent in violations. It has estimated that 150 lives were saved over five years in the 14 biggest cities that use them.

Other studies, though, have shown an increase in crashes, and critics say drivers slamming on the brakes because they are fearful of being cited are causing rear-end collisions.

Alana Miller of PennPIRG said the group has not taken a position on the Pennsylvania legislation.

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