Saturday, April 11, 2009

Red-light cameras are important tools that save lives

(Originally published 4/11/09)

My parents offered plenty of instruction, pointers and tips when I was learning to drive. Most valuable, however: "Never be the first car through an intersection."

Have you ever counted the cars that run red lights?

I've counted as many as six at once. But I never thought much about red-light cameras –- never, that is, until Mark Wandall.

I was living in Florida and working for the state House of Representatives in 2003 when Wandall, a Bradenton resident, left home to go to the store. His wife, Melissa, nine months pregnant with their daughter, stayed behind.

Mark was killed just a few blocks away by a woman who ran a red light.

Melissa began a tenacious public awareness campaign to get state lawmakers to allow the cameras.

Six years later, she's still working on it.

Red-light running is one of the worst public safety problems in America. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that 800 people are killed and 165,000 are injured every year due to red-light running.

Eight hundred deaths -– 800 senseless, completely preventable deaths. Eight hundred families who shouldn't be without their loved ones.

My conservative friends recoil at the very mention of red-light cameras. It's an invasion of privacy, they say; Big Brother lurking on every corner.

I don't get that. The cameras don't record every car coming through the intersection; they have to be triggered by the offending one. And even then, they can photograph only the license plate.

But guess what? If you have a driver's license, Big Brother already has an awkward picture of you, anyway.

Some legal analysts argue that the evidence collected by red-light cameras cannot be used to enforce criminal penalties. They cite the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the accused the right "to be confronted with the witnesses against him."

I don't buy it. Red-light cameras function as an extension of law enforcement, as sworn officers would if we had the human and financial resources to put a cop on every corner. They are electronic witnesses -– witnesses whose testimony can't be twisted or swayed.

And evidence from unmanned surveillance cameras is readily used in criminal proceedings, sometimes as the only supplement to otherwise completely circumstantial cases. No apparent Sixth Amendment violations there.

In 2006, Miami Herald columnist Larry Lebowitz addressed the "more substantive constitutional concern about due process of law" raised by civil libertarians: Citations are automatically sent to the registered owner of the vehicle -- not necessarily the driver who ran the light.

Lebowitz noted, "The situation is akin to the citation that public agencies are issuing when drivers run through a tollbooth without a SunPass (an electronic transponder for tolls):" Either pay the fine, or rat out the offender.

Opponents say cameras are municipal cash cows, advanced by the insurance industry as a way to collect higher premiums (based on tickets) without providing more services.

So? The result -– safer roads –- is the same.

Nick Adenhart spent Wednesday night pitching six scoreless innings for the Los Angeles Angels. Adenhart, the Angels' top pitching prospect, had beaten a shoulder injury. At 22, he had a bright future and his whole life ahead of him.

Six hours later, he was killed by a man who ran a red light.

Why shouldn't we do everything we can to keep this from happening again?

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