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Panel airs pros, cons of red-light cameras

ATLANTA - Red-light cameras in Georgia are questionable legally, of uncertain benefit to public safety and are being used by cities to line their coffers, a Republican lawmaker charged Wednesday.

But state and local law enforcement officials defended the cameras as lifesaving tools that have proven an invaluable supplement to the work of live traffic officers.

The back-and-forth came during a hearing before the House Transportation Committee on legislation cutting in half the fine for being caught on camera running a red light.

The bill is one of two aimed at red-light cameras now making their way through the House.

The Motor Vehicles Committee approved a measure last week that, among other things, would require local governments to share revenue obtained from the fines with the state.

As introduced, that bill would have banned red-light cameras altogether. The legislation that emerged from the committee was a substitute bill.

Both measures are attempts to discourage cities from using red-light cameras more as a cash cow than a way to increase safety.

While some cities are using the revenue from fines to buy police and fire equipment, others are simply dumping the money into their general-fund budgets, said Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, chief sponsor of legislation that would reduce red-light camera fines from $70 to $35.

"Some have seen it as a revenue stream to the point of making it a line item in their budgets,'' he said.

Loudermilk said the cameras also raise constitutional questions. He said that when a motorist is photographed running a red light instead of being pulled over by a police officer, the driver is denied the legal right to confront his or her accuser.

"Traffic light cameras put the burden of proof on the accused,'' he said.

Loudermilk also said the research that has been done in Georgia on red-light cameras is inconclusive on whether they reduce the number of traffic accidents.

But police officials from two cities in metro Atlanta cited statistics of their own that they said prove the cameras are working.

Snellville Police Chief Roy Whitehead said the number of crashes in his city last year went up by half a percentage point over 2005. But during prior years, before red-light cameras were installed, traffic accidents were going up at a rate of 10 percent to 12 percent, he said.

"Our accidents are down, our injuries are down and our number of violations are down,'' he said.

Samuel F. Patterson, assistant police chief in Riverdale, said the number of broadside collisions at the busy intersection of Church Street and Ga. Highway 85 fell from 15 in 2004 and 14 in 2005 - before red-light cameras were installed there - to just one last year.

"That was the most dangerous intersection in the city of Riverdale,'' he said.

Bob Dallas, director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, said local governments need the revenue they're getting from the fines to cover the huge costs of buying and maintaining red-light cameras.

Dallas said all of the studies he has seen show that the cameras are reducing the number of violations and, thus, increasing public safety.

On the legal issue, he cited two opinions from the Georgia attorney general's office that use of red-light cameras is constitutional.

Finally, Dallas argued that law enforcement must take advantage of all available technology to make the highways safer.

"If we just sit back and have a reactive system, we're going to have more deaths in the state and more serious injuries,'' he said.

Rather than voting on Loudermilk's bill, committee Chairman Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, assigned it to a subcommittee.

But he said he expects the panel to make a decision on the measure as early as next week.