Red-light camera bills up for discussion

TRENTON – The contentious issue of red-light cameras – safety enhancements or revenue generators  (or both?) – will be up for discussion-only in three bills before the Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee Thursday.

The proposals address various aspects of the divisive technology. Supporters point to fewer collisions, but opponents point to fatter municipal bank accounts.

A3575, for instance, would lengthen the yellow light at such intersections and would institute a grace period for violations that occur in the half second immediately after a traffic light turns red. It would reduce the fine to $20 for failing to stop before turning right on red. This bill will supplant another one on the agenda, A3285, which deals with the same issues.

A3399 would ban outright right turns on red lights at such intersections, and would mandate signs be posted to inform motorists.

And although it is not up in this Assembly hearing, Sen. Michael Doherty recently said he will introduce in the upper chamber a bill that would mandate that if red light cameras are going to operate, then the ticket revenue from such violations would shift from the towns and into the state Highway Safety Fund.

Late last year, the state Department of Transportation issued a study that it said concluded that red light cameras have led to a decrease in citations but an increase in some crashes, in particular rear-end collisions.

However, Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, R-13, Red Bank, who is totally against red light cameras and is one of the sponsors of A3575/A3285, said the goals of this legislation – increased times for yellow lights, half-second grace periods – are backed up by science.

“My first preference would be to kill the red light program,’’ he said. “We have the proof they don’t enhance safety.

“Failing that, if we are going to continue the pilot we have to make sure we are treating people fairly, and this bill would get us doing these things.”

The bottom line, he said, is that law-abiding motorists are getting tickets they never should have been given.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-37,  Englewood, who is a prime sponsor of all three bills, couldn’t agree more.

“I’d like to ban them altogether,’’ she said, adding that she agrees “1,000 percent” with Doherty’s idea of dedicating the money from fines to the safety fund.

“To me, it’s for profit,’’ she said of towns’ motivations in setting up such red light camera intersections.  An $85 ticket for a right-on-red violation is hefty, she said.

O’Scanlon, who is not a sponsor of the bill addressing right turns on red, A3399, said the red light camera program, generally speaking, is its own worst enemy.

And Huttle said there are other problems with the program, including a time lag sometimes of two months between an alleged infraction and a motorist receiving the ticket in the mail, and the fact an officer has to be occupied reviewing the videotapes to spot alleged violators when their time might better be spent actually patrolling the streets.

“There is so much confusion,’’ she said.  At the very least, she hopes, the legislation will help make the rules clearer to motorists.

If such a program continues, she said, then at the very least the regulations need to be clearer, the fines need to be lower, and the whole approach needs to change.

O’Scanlon, however, remains confident that once the pilot program ends, it will not be extended.

“I think the Legislature, after all the controversy, all the gnashing of teeth, and all of the coverage of how inherently  unfair these systems are, the Legislature will not pass another one of these programs.”

A  law signed in January 2008 set a five-year pilot program in place that began in December 2009.

In its evaluation issued late last year, the state Department of Transportation pointed out that red light camera programs are to be used at intersections that traditionally have had problems with traffic safety. As of last May, there were 83 such intersections in 25 municipalities.

Among other things, the DOT study said the data from the two sites in operation for two years is still too limited to draw conclusions about the pilot program.

Towns that want to set up such a red light camera program can’t just do it on their own, but must submit applications to DOT, which then is to analyze crash and other data before issuing approval.

Red-light camera bills up for discussion