Friday, March 22, 2013

Traffic Lights & Cameras, Good Buddy

[The entry below is intended as an overview with respect to the increased & wide-spread interest in the various issues surrounding speed, traffic and red-light cameras around the nation albeit with our particular concern of the Cincinnati,southwest Ohio region of the country ]

You can almost hear the diesel whine and air-brakes, the refrain of Burt Reynolds, Jackie Gleason, "Snowman," "Frog," "Smokey & the Bandit," --- "East Bound & Down, Good Buddy……" The infamous small town highway speed trap seems being eulogized --- or maybe resurrected --- into 21st Century light sabers and speed racers, although the primary reasons have doubtlessly not changed.

An NBCNews article last month heralded "Lights, cameras, reaction: Resistance builds against red-light cameras," noting, "A rarity 15 years ago, red light cameras have become ubiquitous in many U.S. cities. Communities in 24 states and Washington, D.C., now use the cameras to try to decrease illegal -- and sometimes deadly -- traffic violations. Supporters say it's worked.

"Red light cameras are one piece of a growing network of automated traffic enforcement. Cameras now monitor speed, bus and high-occupancy-vehicle lanes and intersections with stop signs. Proponents like Washington, D.C. police chief Cathy Lanier, which began using the cameras in 1999., says they help to deter accidents, nab violators and allow states and municipalities to keep an eye on the roads for less…. She was quoted as saying 'that's dramatic!'"

Critics of red light programs worry about the Big Brother aspect of using cameras instead of cops, and many are saying the cameras, systems & procedures behind them -- generally run by private companies -- have spread not because they make streets safer, but because they mean profit for cities and companies.

"Recent news stories have fueled opposition," that article read. "In Chicago, an alleged pay-to-play scandal led the mayor to ban one company from bidding for future contracts. Millions were spent on pro-camera lobbying in Florida and other states. In Iowa, doubts about the constitutionality of using cameras as traffic enforcers led a state senator to introduce a bill to ban red-light cameras – a move already taken by at least nine other states."

The topic isn't really new, though. Cameras first received serious attention in the United States in the 1980s following a highly publicized crash in 1982, involving a red light runner who collided with an 18-month-old girl in a stroller (or "push-chair") in New York City, according to Wikipedia's red-light camera article.. A community group worked with the city's Department of Transportation to research automated law enforcement systems to identify and ticket drivers who run red lights, and New York's red-light camera program went into effect in 1993. ( Here

The popular/media jury, though, still largely holds the same position as years before, exemplified by a Chicago Tribune’s 2009 article's saying "if improved safety is the goal of red-light cameras, then it is a mission largely unaccomplished for the first crop of area suburbs that raced to install the devices after they became legal in 2006, according to state data."

--- And Wikipedia also notes that the State of Ohio was the first in which the issue of whether a city has jurisdiction under the Ohio Constitution to issue citations based on speed cameras was heard by the Ohio Supreme Court in September 2007, in the case of Kelly Mendenhall et al. v. The City of Akron et al. The court ruled, in a decision certifying state law questions, in favor of the city, saying Akron's ordinance didn't change speed limits established by state law or change police officers' ability to cite traffic offenders; targeted identical conduct as state law, but did not replace it , merely supplemented it, and so represented a valid exercise of the city's home rule authority. That Court, however, also noted that "although there are due process questions regarding the operation of the Akron Ordinance and those similar to it, those questions are not appropriately before us at this time and will not be discussed here."

Enter our own little corner of the argument and current local concerns. Last July the Village of Elmwood Place passed an ordinance implementing an automated speed enforcement program, entering into a service agreement with Optotraffic, LLC, a Maryland-based corporation that provides local government entities with automated speed & traffic enforcement service and equipment. The Village then passed a second ordinance to the effect that "anyone asking for an 'administrative hearing' as a result of the program would be assessed a $25.00 fee, even if the request had been made before the law's passage, implementing the entire package effective September 1, 2012. On Nov. 29th. a group of concerned residents & businesses filed suit addressing due process aspects of Elmwood's program including their contention that "Ohio Revised Code 1905.01 et seq. authorizes the Village of Elmwood Place to establish a Mayor's Court to hear & determine any prosecution for the violation of the municipal corporation…. The Village may only exercise jurisdiction to 'hear & decide' a case pursuant to Chapter 1905 of the Revised Code. As a result, all administrative hearings on Notices of Liability must be conducted before a Mayor’s Court…."

On Thursday, March 7, 2013, Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman found in favor of those plaintiffs, characterizing the Village's program as "nothing more than a high-tech game of 3-card Monty and a scam the motorist cannot win," which pretty much made this a national news story in a very short time. Judge Ruehlman's decision effectively shuts down Elmwood's program including any scheduled hearings and, at least temporarily, excuses those who have received notices from having to pay them. The Village filed an immediate appeal.

Cases similar to ours challenging a private companies' rights to hand out citations have been heard, such as Amanda Ward v. ACS State and Local Solutions Inc., d/b/a LDC Collection Systems, a December 2008 case challenging the City of Dallas' red light camera program, which was dismissed in March 2009. In short, there was no court order in effect that affects the City's right to administer and enforce its "red light camera" program, including the collection of civil fines from violators. Current and past outstanding fines and penalties that were still due, which was upheld by the Dallas Court of Appeals in November 2010.

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety currently shows that a majority of state statutes do not address automated devices such as speed & red-light cameras with Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, South Carolina (with narrow exceptions), Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin, however, having enacted prohibitions on red light, speed or other photo enforcement camera uses. One can possibly add Ohio to that list as a bill was introduced in the state's House on Feb. 20, 2013 seeking "to prohibit the use of traffic law photo-monitoring devices by municipal corporations, counties, townships, and the State Highway Patrol to detect traffic signal light and speed limit violations.."

Wikipedia’s "red light" article touched on "privacy concerns," noting that that argument had been addressed back in early 2003 with Idris v. City of Chicago, a case initially commenced by car owners who said that they had been fined even though someone else was driving their cars at the time, maintaining that Chicago's system violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the Constitution's fourteenth amendment. The district court held otherwise and entered summary judgment for the defendants. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld in 2009.

We lastly took occasion to glimpse at reported instances where cities in the US have been found to have too-short yellow light intervals at some intersections where red light cameras have been installed. Here, Wikipedia’s article comments that although national guidelines addressing the length of traffic signals are available, most/many traffic signal phase times are determined by the government employees of the city, county or state for that signalized location.

Enter the National Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

Back in 1966, Congress passed the Highway Safety Act, P.L. 89-564, 72 Stat. 885 (1966), which is now codified at 23 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., requiring all states to create a highway safety program by December 31, 1968, and to adhere to uniform standards promulgated by the U.S. Department of Transportation as a condition of receiving federal highway-aid funds. The Department simply adopted the entire MUTCD by reference at 23 C.F.R. 655.603. Thus, what was formerly a quasi-official project became an official one. States are allowed to supplement the MUTCD but must remain in "substantial conformance" with the national MUTCD and adopt changes within two years after they are adopted by FHWA. (See here )

The last adoptation was in 2009 with the states being required to adopt the 2009 National Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) as their legal state standard for traffic control devices in 2011. These standards required engineering practices to be used to set yellow light timing durations at individual intersections and or corridors. For guidance to state authorities, MUTCD states yellow lights should have a minimum duration of 3 seconds and a maximum duration of 6 seconds."

"MUTCD," the DOT's announcement read, "did not require or recommend any particular methods for determining the durations of these critical safety intervals in the traffic signal sequence. A compliance date of December 31, 2014 (5 years), or when timing adjustments are made to the individual intersection and/or corridor, whichever occurs first, was established for highway agencies to use engineering practices to determine times for the yellow change intervals and red clearance interval at their existing signalized locations and to revise the timing of those intervals based on the determinations."

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