Traffic camera days numbered in Ohio

Red light and speed cameras across the region are expected to snap fewer photographs soon now that a law strictly limits their use.

Traffic cameras have generated millions of dollars in revenue for some of Ohio’s larger cities, including Springfield, Cleveland, Toledo and Dayton.

Gov. John Kasich recently signed into law Ohio Senate Bill 342, which prohibits citations to be issued for traffic violations recorded by speed-detection and red light cameras unless police officers are stationed at the devices at the time of the infractions.

The law makes the cameras too expensive for most cities to operate, likely ending their use in most communities.

Eliminating photo enforcement traffic cameras means that motorists in Ohio will no longer be subject to unfair and legally dubious fines that are difficult to contest, opponents said. The cameras have been criticized as “automated speed traps” intended primarily to boost government coffers.

But local city officials said the cameras weren’t installed to increase revenue but to improve safety at dangerous intersections and along problem stretches of road. Officials said roadways in their communities will be less safe and could see an increase in crashes after the cameras are unplugged.

“At a time when personnel and resources are short, it is unfortunate that we are now unable to use 20-year-old proven technology to supplement our work force,” Springfield City Manager Jim Bodenmiller said. “The state preaches efficiency and savings, yet they remove a tool for law enforcement that accomplished both.”

Supporters of the legislation said civil fines tied to camera systems deprived motorists of due process and drivers were issued fines for actions and infractions that police officers likely would allow to slide if witnessed in person.

Nearly half of the citations issued for red light violations caught on camera occur when motorists turn right at a red light but don’t come to a complete stop at the intersection, said Ohio Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, the bill’s primary sponsor.

“It’s one thing if we are talking about rush hour, gridlock, and people rolling are through red lights … but when it’s 4 a.m., and there is no one on the road, the camera will issue a citation when I think most law enforcement officers would not,” he said.

Seitz was ticketed by one of the cameras in 2010 in Columbus.

He said cities and villages used photo enforcement camera systems for revenue enhancement, and they would continue using them with officers present if they actually improved safety.

Most local communities that use camera systems said they will be forced to eliminate the devices because of the new restrictions. Cameras unquestionably have benefited the general funds of some local cities.

Springfield, which has collected about $3.7 million in fines from red light cameras since they were installed, would have to hire at least 42 officers to provide the same level of enforcement at those intersections, which is out of the question, Bodenmiller said.

The city stands to lose about $250,000 next year in general fund revenue once the cameras are shelved. Springfield has issued about 89,285 citations based on photo evidence since the cameras were installed in 2006.

The cameras have undoubtedly saved lives, reduced injuries and prevented vehicles from being damaged, Bodenmiller said. Crashes at monitored intersections declined almost 50 percent between 2007 and 2012, he said, and accident rates will certainly increase at those spots once the cameras are removed.

Springfield is currently reviewing its contract with Redflex Traffic Systems, which operates the cameras.

West Carrollton will likely eliminate its 12 automated cameras because of the new regulations because the city does not believe the program will be cost effective and expects to terminate its agreement with Redflex, said Brad Townsend, city manager of West Carrollton.

The city expected to receive about $125,000 in fines from the program in 2015. The city has received more than $584,000 in revenue from the program.

Trotwood is still researching the cost-effectiveness of its camera system under the new regulations, and all possibilities are being explored, said Trotwood police Capt. John Porter.

But the city is bracing for a loss of revenue. Porter said the city has two unfilled police officer positions, one of which will be eliminated to address the anticipated decline in fines.

The city has collected about $1.9 million in fines from its photo enforcement program since 2006. The city received more than $227,000 from the program this year.

Some local motorists are heralding the new restrictions on traffic cameras as a victory for drivers.

Billy Cline of Springfield said the $100 tickets are costly, especially for minor traffic offenses.

“As a driver, you sometimes make minute mistakes when driving and sometime those minute mistakes can cost you $100 and that’s hard when you’re making $20,000 a year,” he said.

Cline said he would prefer motorists be monitored by police officers rather than cameras.

“I would be for more cops on the street and not more cameras on the street,” Cline said.

Carol Trissel of New Carlisle agreed.

She said she saw one of the cameras flash while she was driving recently, but is unsure if she will get a ticket.

“I just don’t think they’re constitutionally right,” Trissel said.

She said she doesn’t like the cameras because they can’t definitively say who is driving a vehicle and give tickets to motorists for minor offenses.

“It brings in money for (communities), but give me a break. I think we’ve got enough of Big Brother looking over us,” Trissel said.

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