The cameras have reduced red light running by 59.4% at 4 test intersections in Seattle and have proven to be modestly effective in a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) study. It is important to note that while the FHWA study shows that automated traffic safety cameras increase the occurrence of rear-end accidents, this has not occurred in Seattle. Therefore, the safety benefits in Seattle’s context are most likely greater than the report indicates (because improved safety from a reduction of right-angle collisions are often partially offset by an increase in rear-end collisions). Seattle’s low arterial speed limit probably contributes to this anomaly.
The bill would change the following sentence from:
…the amount of the fine issued for an infraction generated through the use of an automated traffic safety camera shall not exceed the amount of a fine issued for other parking infractions within the jurisdiction.
…the amount of the fine issued for an infraction generated through the use of an automated traffic safety camera shall not exceed the average amount of ((a)) fines issued for other parking infractions within the jurisdiction.
…more after the jump
Currently the Seattle Police Department (SPD) issues fines of $124 for red light violations caught with a safety camera. I spoke to Mike Quinn who is director of the Traffic Safety Camera Project. He said that depending on one’s reading of the bill (average price of parking ticket possible or average price of parking tickets actually issued over some period of time) this bill would result in red light running fines of around $42 dollars. If the second interpretation is used it would be slightly higher but he couldn’t say exactly how much (FYI here is the SMC “Bail Table”).
Put simply, SB 6410 would cut fines from $124 to ~$42, a two-thirds decrease. By comparison, speeding tickets in school zones are $189, or 4.5 times higher than the maximum fine possible with Sen. Kastama’s proposed legislation. To me, this represents a disconnect between actual risk and penalty. The Senator’s rationale for his legislation was presented in the press release below:
“The traffic cameras were originally passed in the interest of public safety, but now they’re viewed as revenue generators,” the Puyallup Democrat said. “Local governments are levying fines far higher than anyone in the Legislature intended.”
In approving the use of automated traffic cameras in speed zones, the Legislature authorized governments to set fines equivalent to those for routine parking violations. But instead of mirroring typical parking fines, governments chose the costliest parking fines on the books — those for parking in handicapped zones. It’s a fine that typically runs into three figures.
“There’s a public official in Seattle who flat out calls these things ‘revenue generators’ and wants the city to install 70 more,” Kastama said. “It’s clear that the focus has shifted from public safety to revenue. This is not what the Legislature intended and it’s not what the public wants.”
In fact, handicapped parking violations are a $250 fine, and any money the city receives can be referred to as a “revenue source” or “revenue generator”. Moreover I don’t see how reducing the cost of fines will increase safety of the traveling public. Success of laws can be judged by their swiftness of application, certainty, and severity of penalty imposed. Reduce any one of these factors (in this case severity of penalty) and the law becomes weaker. Strengthen any one, or better yet all three, but to a lesser degree, and the law becomes stronger. Senator Kastama’s bill does the exact opposite of what he says he wants.
Rather than focusing on reducing fines, which will only increase the number of violations, it seems that other changes to the legislation could do more to improve public safety. For example, changing the legislation so that all automated traffic safety camera fines are treated as tickets and therefore placed on a driver’s permanent record would increase the severity of penalty imposed by impacting violators’ long-term insurance rates. Admittedly, this would require a significant change to the legislation, because currently the owner of the car is fined, not the driver who broke the law. However, let’s not forget that running a red light is, in most situations, more dangerous than speeding, and the distinction that somehow because enforcement is done automatically we can’t treat it as such is wrong.
Furthermore, ensuring that revenue from fines are directed not to the general fund, but used for traffic safety purposes (more police enforcement, public safety campaigns, new signals at high-risk locations, pedestrian safety improvements, etc.) would be much more productive and certainly do more to improve safety than Senators Kastama’s bill. Finally, increasing the number of locations covered (especially high risk locations) as well as mobile enforcement cameras would increase the certainty of penalty.
So while the Senator Kastama’s stated intention is to improve safety of the traveling public, and everyone can certainly agree that should be the goal, his bill would do little to actually achieve that goal while undermining automated traffic safety camera systems state-wide.