Are speed traps about safety or revenue? It’s been a question since the first cop wrote the first speeding ticket, and it was the challenge Thursday for advocates of a high-tech version of the old speed trap: automated red-light cameras.
Legislative advocates of the automated ticketing system said safety was their only concern as they stood in front of a backdrop provided by the National Coalition for Safer Roads, a nonprofit group financed by a vendor of red-light cameras.
American Traffic Solutions helped create the national nonprofit group last summer, not long after it hired two of Connecticut’s top 10 lobbying firms, Brown Rudnick and Capitol Strategies.
“It’s not about revenues. I want to make that very clear. It’s about saving lives,” said Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, the co-chairman the legislature’s Transportation Committee.
Advocates say the threat of a ticket every time someone runs a red light is a stronger deterrent than the off-chance a police officer will witness and pursue a violation.
But Guerrera and other advocates, including the House and Senate majority leaders, were unprepared to explain precisely how they propose to define in statute what amounts to a public-private partnership on automated traffic enforcement.
Fines? They are discussing penalties ranging from $50 to $75, less than the $124 proposed last year. Will the vendor get a flat fee for providing the equipment and services or a cut of the tickets? That is uncertain.
The press conference was dominated by questions about revenue and the relationship that municipalities would have with American Traffic Solutions or any other vendor.
“I understand some of those concerns,” Guerrera said. As far as revenue for the vendors, he said, “They have a right to recoup their costs.”
After a string of pointed questions, Christopher D. Hunter of Advocacy Solutions, the Rhode Island-based government affairs firm hired by the National Coalition for Safer Roads, tried to end the press conference.
“I think we’re going to wrap up,” he said.
He was shouted down by reporters.
Their presentation tried to focus on public safety, featuring a police chief, an expert on traumatic brain injuries and Gary Lapidus, the director of the Injury Prevention Center at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
Lapidus talked about a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that concluded the cameras saved 159 lives from 2004 to 2008 in 14 cities. They could have saved 815 lives over five years if they had been in place in all 99 cities with populations greater than 200,000.
Connecticut legislators this year are confronted with conflicting studies about the efficacy of red-light cameras and objections over issues ranging from privacy to due process.
The American Civil Liberties Union claims the cameras are ineffective, citing reviews by various police departments and a University of South Florida report that asserted “comprehensive studies conclude cameras actually increase crashes and injuries.”
Lapidus said he hopes Connecticut tries the cameras, but control over the sites should rest with police departments, not private vendors, and police should base their decisions on crash data.
He suggested a scientific approach: closely monitor a like number of dangerous intersections with and without the cameras over a period of years to see if the cameras reduce crashes.
Lapidus said he has no financial relationship with American Traffic Solutions or any other vendor.
The cameras have been controversial nationally, with Los Angeles, Houston and Albuquerque discontinuing their systems, according to the ACLU. It cost Houston $4.8 million to terminate its contract with American Traffic.
But they have significant support in Connecticut.
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, who play major roles in determining the agendas of both chambers, are prominent supporters, as are the mayors of New Haven and Hamden.
Looney said the legislation will be written to ensure that the cameras do not trap motorists like the iconic motorcycle cops of old, waiting behind billboards to pounce of clueless drives. Signs will be posted warning of the cameras.
“This is not a gotcha effort,” Looney said.