Jan. 24, 2002 The Voice of the Times on photographing red light runners

Posted: Monday, January 28, 2002

It was only a matter of time before frustration with red light runners would prompt someone to suggest that Anchorage automatically snap pictures of violators and send them a ticket in the mail.

Some Rogers Park residents, news reports say, want the city to do just that, citing problems in their neighborhood.

Proponents of such a program may run into a buzz saw of opposition, given this city's past experience with a predatory photo-radar program and overzealous parking enforcement. Angry voters in 1997 returned all traffic enforcement responsibilities to the police.

There can be little doubt that there is a problem in Anchorage with people who, for one reason or another, run red lights. Virtually everyone has a story about near misses or accidents caused by somebody sailing through a red light. Anchorage police issued 3,282 tickets for the offense in 2000.

National statistics show those who run the lights kill about 800 people a year and injure another 200,000. In Alaska, we suffer about 2.7 deaths per 100,000 population, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says. Police here do not keep statistics on red light deaths.

Who are the people who endanger us all? While everybody goofs once in a while, generally, red light runners are younger, with poorer driving records, the institute says. They drive smaller and older vehicles, and do not use their seat belts -- and they are three times as likely to have multiple speeding convictions on their driving records as those who do not run the lights.

Would cameras at intersections make a difference? In some locales it has; in others, simply increasing the time the traffic signal remains yellow has produced better results. And in many places where the cameras are in use, there has been controversy. In San Diego -- where a single traffic light camera brought the city $6.8 million over an 18-month period -- a lawsuit forced the city to shut down its red light cameras after it was shown the hardware had been fixed to snare drivers.

There are questions that should be answered here before toying with the idea of red light cameras as public policy:

Would it be legal in view of the 1997 vote?

How would ticketed red light runners be able to cross-examine their ''accusers'' in court? How would their rights be protected?

Would extending yellow light times and increased police presence at intersections have a more beneficial effect?

What assurances could be given that the program would not turn into yet another revenue scam?

While the insurance industry assures us that citizens more easily support red light cameras than photo-radar, the memory of this city's flirtation with its misguided photo-radar program is still very fresh.

Red light enforcement cameras will be a tough sell. ------

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