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Originally published Sunday, August 28, 2011 at 9:02 PM

Eyman, red-light-camera foes push for city bans

A Tim Eyman-led backlash against red-light cameras has spurred November ballot initiatives in Longview, Bellingham and Monroe, and signature-gathering is under way in Redmond and Wenatchee.

Seattle Times staff reporter

How they workin Washington

• When a sensor embedded in the road detects a red-light runner, a camera at the intersection shoots photographs and a 20-second video of the car and its license plate.

• The photos are reviewed in Arizona, where scores of technicians in cubicles determine whether there was a violation. They send suspected red-light runners' photos to local police, who tell the red-light company where to send the tickets.

• The $124 ticket arrives in the mail a couple of weeks later. Cities are raking in millions of dollars.

quotes For those of you that think this is so great, stop and think a little bit harder. Do... Read more
quotes Very funny, Ngoo. I became unalterably opposed to these money grubbing machines... Read more
quotes It isnt surprising that the police department and city elected officials are for... Read more

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Tim Eyman's anti-tax initiatives have developed, he admits, "a partisan tinge" over the years. But Washington's ballot-measure king says he finally has found an issue that unites voters across the aisle: red-light cameras.

An Eyman-led backlash against the cameras is sweeping the state and raising ethical and legal questions about their use for public safety and revenue.

Last year, 71 percent of Mukilteo voters said they wanted to ban the cameras, which snap photos of cars running red lights, with tickets later mailed to their owners. Camera measures are headed for the November ballot in Longview, Bellingham and Monroe, and signature-gathering is under way in Redmond and Wenatchee.

All but the Redmond effort have gone to court. The state Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether state law allows voters to ban the cameras, so the measures are moving forward without much legal clarity.

"Washington is kind of becoming a battleground state, because I think the red-light-camera companies know that if they lose Washington, they'll probably lose the rest of the country," said state Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, a former police officer who says the camera revenue has become "crack cocaine" for cities.

Los Angeles and Houston in the past two months have stopped using the cameras. Los Angeles stopped because the program was losing money; Houston was responding to a public vote to ban the cameras.

Privacy, civil liberties

Reasons people want to get rid of the cameras vary: Some say they violate privacy and civil liberties by photographing drivers and declaring them guilty before they can defend themselves.

Others complain the cameras are profit-making robots that threaten the credibility of police officers and tempt cities to rely on tickets for operating money.

And some opponents believe it's not a good idea to hand over a core government responsibility to an out-of-state, for-profit industry.

Nicholas Sherwood, a Puyallup contractor, was talking a year ago with some friends about how the cameras were "bogus." "We thought nobody was working on this issue," he said.

He started looking into them and, with his wife's help, started BanCams.com, a clearinghouse for stories about the fight against cameras across the country.

"We are citizens that think law enforcement should be about protecting people and property, not making money," the site says on its home page. "Traffic cameras are all about money, not safety."

Eyman found Sherwood, and BanCams.com became a recruiting tool for Eyman's ragtag network of local opponents who want to fight cameras on the ballot.

Now on Eyman's team: a 17-year-old in Longview who started a signature drive; a Whatcom Community College student who says a paper-server threatened his mother when she wouldn't reveal his whereabouts; a tea-party group in Monroe that took part in a rally last month featuring Eyman in a red-light-camera cardboard hat.

Eyman calls the effort a "massive uprising."

Proponents have on their side police officers, elected officials and insurance-industry statistics that show the cameras decrease traffic accidents by almost 25 percent.

Used correctly, they say, violations go down over time, as drivers become more aware.

"What has been seen across the country is that there's a vocal minority who oppose cameras, but the overwhelming majority of people are law-abiding people who believe and recognize and accept traffic-safety cameras as the lifesaving tools that they are," said David Goldenberg, a spokesman for the national Traffic Safety Coalition.

Red-light cameras have multiplied nationwide over the past five years from 1,000 to more than 5,500, said Charles Territo, a spokesman for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based American Traffic Solutions, which operates cameras and holds several contracts with cities in Washington.

The state Legislature approved the cameras' use in 2005, and according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 26 Washington cities have signed contracts to install the cameras.

In Seattle, cameras patrol 21 intersections and brought in $4.8 million in ticket fines last year.

Red-light cameras received a boost this year from an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study that compared cities with the cameras to cities without. The rate of fatal accidents fell in both types of cities, but it fell 24 percentage points more in cities that had intersections with cameras.

Seattle has had less impressive results. A 2008 study after the cameras had been in place for two years found they didn't decrease crashes overall, though they may have reduced the number of serious crashes.

Banned in 9 states

Nine states have banned cameras, and Territo said they have been the subject of ballot measures in 18 cities nationally. In all, he said, voters wanted the cameras removed.

Eyman started his anti-camera campaign in his hometown of Mukilteo last year. He collected enough signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot.

A pro-camera group sued to keep it off the ballot, but lost. An appeal is pending in the state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, voters overwhelmingly rejected the cameras. Since the legal case was not settled, the Mukilteo City Council voted to eliminate cameras at lights and in school zones.

Victorious, Eyman teamed up with other local opponents:

• A Bellingham measure is headed for the ballot after a judge ruled Aug. 17 to dismiss a lawsuit by American Traffic Solutions. The camera company says the Legislature could ban cameras, but local voters cannot.

The judge fined American Traffic Solutions $10,000 for bringing a lawsuit that would stifle free speech, and told the company to pay defendants' legal fees. American Traffic Solutions has appealed.

• The Longview City Council at first refused to put a citizen initiative on the ballot. A group sued, and the city acquiesced. Longview voters will consider the initiative in November.

Voters also will take an advisory vote on the cameras that the City Council put on the ballot.

• In Redmond, a signature-gathering effort won't be done in time for the fall ballot, Eyman said.

• In Monroe, Ty Balascio led a tea-party group, Seeds of Liberty, to gather signatures to end the city's fledgling red-light camera program. Monroe police just started using the cameras to issue tickets at a traffic light on Highway 2.

Snohomish County validated Balascio's signatures, but the Monroe City Council refused to put the measure on the ballot and sued the citizens group.

The council instead put an advisory measure on the November ballot, asking whether the city should renew its camera contract in 2013.

"We're hoping that the education of having the cameras there, the people are going to change the behaviors," said Debbie Willis, a spokeswoman for the Monroe Police Department.

"It is eye-opening for us right now to see the first violations actually on video and that we do have people that are blatantly running red lights," she said.

Monroe doesn't intend to make money off the cameras, Willis said. Ticket revenue should just cover only the cost of the cameras.

That's not true everywhere. Falling revenue from red-light cameras is playing a role in a midyear budget crisis in Lynnwood. The city depends on red-light tickets to raise $2.8 million, about 5 percent of its general-fund budget.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report. Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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