Red light cameras across the state would likely be eliminated if lawmakers approve a proposal to require police officers at intersections with cameras.
But that’s what opponents of the automated traffic programs want because they see them simply as a money grab for cities.
If Senate Bill 342 is passed, it would likely cost Springfield about $5.6 million annually to place officers at the 10 intersections where its 17 cameras are located, according to the nonprofit Traffic Safety Coalition.
It would cost cities across Ohio about $77 million to keep their programs operational.
“It effectively kills our program entirely,” Springfield City Manager Jim Bodenmiller said. “We would not be able to run the program efficiently by placing an officer there.”
Proponents of red light cameras say they’ve increased safety and reduced crashes at dangerous intersections.
“We’re not sneaking them up on people,” Bodenmiller said. “We have signage that announces where they are. We’re not moving them around. We haven’t placed them all over town, just placed them at the intersections where we’ve had the most crashes.
“I’ve said it before, but if it were all about a money grab, we’d put them all over the place and we wouldn’t announce that they were here,” he said. “We’re doing the exact opposite.”
Opponents say the programs are simply about money.
Cleveland generated about $5.9 million last year and its contractor saw $3.6 million, said state Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati.
Seitz introduced the legislation in May and believes many of the tickets wouldn’t be written if an officer were present, such as people turning right on red and not coming to a complete stop.
“What they’re doing is issuing what I call ‘ticky-tacky tickets’ in an effort to bolster revenues for the devices,” Seitz said. “That tells you that it isn’t really about safety, it’s about money.”
How it works
The red light camera system has sensors embedded in the road to detect a car’s speed as it approaches an intersection. The sensors alert the system that a vehicle driving over a certain speed is likely to not stop, triggering the camera.
A citation isn’t issued every time the camera is activated, Bodenmiller said.
The camera takes several photos and a 12-second video of the incident. The photos are then reviewed by the company that operates the cameras to determine if a violation occurred.
A Springfield police officer also reviews every incident by video before a citation is issued, Bodenmiller said, allowing them to decide between violations and technicalities.
“It’s the same as having them there, but you can do it with one individual instead of 17,” Bodenmiller said.
Springfield issues a civil citation that doesn’t go through the municipal court system and doesn’t put points on a license like a traditional ticket.
Under the proposed bill, the officer has two options, Seitz said: Use the camera for a citation or chase down the suspect for a conventional traffic ticket.
“We think this will certainly result in fewer cameras and the cities will have to make a decision as to how important it really is,” Seitz said.
Cities would then have to decide whether to discontinue the program, he said, reduce the number of locations or hire more officers. They can also limit the amount of time the cameras are operational to certain hours of the day.
“Getting a ticket for rolling through a right on red at two in the morning when there’s no one around is, to me, a classic example of a ticky-tacky ticket,” Seitz said.
If the officers are stationed at red light camera intersections, it’s a great waste of resources, Bodenmiller said, and they may have to pursue someone through the signal at high rates of speed.
“(The current program) is a much safer system, both for the officers and the public,” he said, “and it works.”
Springfield’s red light camera program began in 2006. Since then, the city’s cameras have resulted in more than 69,900 citations worth about $3.1 million.
Of those citations, a little more than half of them were issued between 2007 and 2008.
While the program provides revenue for the city, Bodenmiller said, the goal is to make the streets safer. Between 2008 and 2013, citations dropped about 67 percent.
The revenue has also decreased almost every year since the city peaked at $786,845 in 2008. Last year, the city generated $271,942.
“The point is to get people to stop causing accidents,” Bodenmiller said. “It’s worked terrifically. If the cameras go away, you’re going to see a return to what we had before.”
In 2007, 90 crashes occurred at the 10 intersections with red light cameras. In 2012, the number dropped to 48 crashes. The safety data “speaks volumes” for the camera’s effectiveness, Bodenmiller said.
Repeated attempts to regulate
Lawmakers have taken several cracks at regulating red light cameras.
A bill similar to the one Seitz has introduced was approved by lawmakers in 2006, but it was eventually vetoed by then Gov. Bob Taft.
Then last year, the House approved House Bill 69, which would outright ban the use of photo monitoring devices, by a vote of 61-32.
The two Republican House members who represent Clark County split their votes. Rep. Bob Hackett of London voted in favor of the bill, while Rep. Ross McGregor of Springfield voted against it. Neither Hackett nor McGregor returned calls seeking comment.
That legislation then headed to the Senate, and Bodenmiller and Springfield Police Sgt. Brett Bauer testified against it on Feb. 19.
But no action has been taken on the bill in the Senate.
“(The Ohio House) is upset with us because we’ve not passed anything, even though its been pending here for very nearly a year,” Seitz said.
The problem, Seitz said, is HB69 likely violates the Ohio constitution home rule provision, which says the state cannot command cities to take certain actions unless it passes a statewide regulation.
So Seitz introduced his proposal on May 20. It was recently discussed in the Senate Government Oversight and Reform Committee, which includes state Sen. Chris Widener, R-Springfield.
By creating a statewide rule of placing police officers at the cameras, Seitz said, it blocks any home rule challenges to the bill.
He philosophically supports proposals banning the cameras, but said his job is to make laws that can withstand a constitutional challenge.
“That’s why we chose this approach,” Seitz said.
Ohio cities use red light cameras to free up officers who can respond to emergencies or other calls, said Kent Scarrett, director of communications for the Ohio Municipal League.
But the proposal in the Statehouse would undermine that, Scarrett said.
“It certainly defeats the purpose of trying to efficiently use police manpower in the best way to maximize service,” he said.
The programs have been characterized as a money grab, Scarrett said, but all tickets generate revenue. The violators are also breaking the law, he said.
“There seems to be a general concern by some people that municipalities are generating revenue by these and that’s somehow a bad thing and that is must be stopped,” Scarrett said.
The cameras aren’t fair, said Springfield resident Michael Efferin. He said he recently paid a ticket from a red light camera near the intersection of Main Street and Belmont Avenue.
“Being out of work, I just think that’s a little too harsh,” Efferin said.
Future of legislation
Both houses are expected to continue to debate red light cameras this year, including both Seitz’s bill and the House-approved legislation.
Sen. Kevin Bacon, R-Minerva Park, wants to introduce a best practices bill for red light cameras, similar to the rules already being followed in Springfield and Columbus, such as an officer reviewing citations and signs at intersections.
“A common sense reform bill makes perfect sense to me,” Bodenmiller said.
Residents are also questioning the red light and speed cameras in court. Several Miami Valley cities including Dayton, New Miami and Elmwood Place were targeted in lawsuits earlier this year, while West Carrollton and Trotwood were named in suits last week.
Elmwood Place was ordered to pay back $1.8 million for illegal fines issued with speed cameras, while New Miami’s traffic cameras were shut down due to a lack of due process.
And the Ohio Supreme Court will hear arguments this week in a driver’s lawsuit against Toledo’s cameras.
Redflex operates Springfield’s cameras and about 3,000 systems in 250 cities in North America, including Dayton, West Carrollton and Trotwood among others.
Seitz is optimistic lawmakers will take action on his bill at some point this year — and that it won’t be vetoed by Gov. John Kasich.
“Hopefully that won’t happen this time,” Seitz said.
Staying with the story
The Springfield News-Sun has written extensively about red light cameras in the city since they were approved in 2006.
Watch for yourself
See videos from Springfield’s red light cameras and a video from Springfield News-Sun Reporter Michael Cooper explaining the legislation.