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Our view: Red-light photos disappear as the revenues drop

Excuse us if we're a bit confused.

When local office holders voted to mount surveillance cameras to catch motorists slinking through intersections after the light turns red, we were told that it was all about safety ... and not at all about revenue.

You can understand why a skeptical public looked on these caught-on-camera campaigns as nothing more than another "sin tax" on citizens.

The 24-7 electronic eye, we were told, was much better than the old-fashioned way of enforcing the law. Cameras would make every potential red-light runner think twice before they accelerate through a crossroad.

So up they went in Duluth, Lilburn, Snellville, Norcross, Suwanee and Gwinnett County. Soon, motorists were being mailed photos of their vehicle's back end beneath a glowing red light. And along with it came a traffic citation.

Councils and commissioners alike justified these sentinels for their contributions to our health and welfare and denied they had anything to do with creating another revenue stream.

Part of their claim proved true: After a time, camera-monitored intersections captured fewer violators and police saw a corresponding decline in the number of collisions. Reason enough to continue the program, right?

Wrong, because as citations dropped, so did revenue.

Further contributing to the decline was state legislation that added one second to the amber light at camera-monitored intersections. That took effect Jan. 1. Given an additional second to scoot through the intersection, many motorists beat the click of the camera. Violators - and the accompanying fines - slowed way down.

Now, governing bodies are re-evaluating.

In Norcross, police officers saw a 25 percent decrease in the number of traffic accidents since the cameras were installed. But extending the yellow-light duration by a second resulted in an 80 percent decrease in citations. The city found it difficult to justify the $16,000 per month expense. As a result, council members voted earlier this month to let their contract with the red-light monitoring company expire.

Crunching similar numbers, Snellville and Lilburn councils last week voted to suspend their red-light programs for 90 days to make further assessments.

Suwanee, like Norcross, has dropped the program entirely.

Duluth officials say they will stop when their lease expires in May.

Gwinnett County officials say it is about safety and they will continue the program. (In 2008, Gwinnett's revenue from the cameras exceeded its expenses. Whether that holds true after the amber-light extension remains to be seen.)

The good news is that the cameras produced the intended effect of reducing violators and made our roads safer. The bad news is that with the decreased citations, the program no longer makes economic sense - especially in these purse-tightened times.

We never were wild about the red-light camera campaign. There are inherent flaws. The camera identifies the miscreant vehicle, not its driver. It seems much too "big brotherish."

So it won't bother us to see them go. But we can't let them go without pointing out the camera campaigns weren't just about safety; that revenue factored into the formula, too. After all, if the ledger sheets were in the black, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

The unsigned editorials reflect the opinion of the Gwinnett Daily Post. Columns, letters to the editor and cartoons reflect the opinions of the individuals who penned them. It is the policy of the Gwinnett Daily Post to correct all errors of fact. Corrections usually run on Page 4A.