COLUMBUS: Law enforcement authorities across Ohio would not be able to use cameras to determine whether drivers have run red lights or driven over the speed limit under a measure endorsed Wednesday by members of the state’s House.
Lawmakers approved the measure by a 61-32 vote. Supporters touted it as a way to eliminate the abuse of the cameras that some municipalities have seen.
Local governments, including Akron, have installed cameras with the purpose of swelling their coffers through ticket fines, but not to increase public safety, said the sponsor of the measure, Rep. Ron Maag (R-Lebanon).
“It is unacceptable to allow these cameras to pry on citizens this way,” Maag said.
The legislation would mean Akron could keep its traffic cameras in school zones, but would be required to have police officers in the school zones when the cameras are operating.
Warner Mendenhall, an Akron attorney who has fought against the city’s speed cameras for years, thinks this would be a big improvement.
“We’re all for cops — not for cameras,” said Mendenhall, who testified on behalf of the bill Tuesday. “Drivers will see the cop car, see the officer and we will have someone view the violation, rather than an unaccountable machine.”
Stephanie York, the city’s spokeswoman, said Akron has a technician from the company that operates the city’s traffic cameras in the school zones to monitor them, but not a police officer. She said city officials are closely watching the traffic camera legislation as it moves through the process.
“Every city is I’m sure looking at this,” she said. “It’s a shame because it’s worked well in Akron.”
York pointed out that Akron’s program held up to challenges in federal court and the Ohio Supreme Court.
York said the city’s camera program caught 11,000 speeders last year and generated $500,000 from tickets that was applied to child safety programs.
Assistant Law Director Steve Fallis said an Akron police officer reviews the photos taken by the cameras before a ticket is issued. He said other cities, like Columbus and Cleveland, have red-light cameras and generate a lot more money than Akron. He said Akron’s cameras have become a deterrent to speeding in school zones, much more so than flashing yellow lights.
“They work,” he said. “We know they work.”
A common pleas judge in March invalidated an ordinance in Elmwood Place, a Cincinnati suburb, criticizing the cameras and the thousands of $105 citations that resulted from their installation.
He ruled that the tickets violate motorists’ constitutional rights to due process and said the village’s enforcement was stacked against drivers. The village began using the cameras in September, resulting in some 6,600 speeding citations in the first month, triple the number of village residents. Revenues that are shared with the company that operates the cameras quickly topped $1 million.
The proposed legislation includes an exemption for school zones, where cameras would be allowed to operate during school recess and opening and closing hours provided that a police officer is present.
Several leaders of law enforcement organizations testified against the proposal Tuesday before a committee that analyzed the bill. They acknowledged that cameras do generate revenue for their localities. They said, however, that the money in some cases is used by the departments to purchase equipment, implement new programs or hire more officers.
More than a dozen Ohio cities use traffic-enforcement cameras. Some were installed to detect motorists who run lights, and others to track speed. In some cities, the cameras have both functions.
Local governments and the companies that set up the cameras split the revenue from the tickets. The 40 cameras set in 38 intersections in Columbus yielded the city $2 million last year. Cleveland collected nearly $6 million during the same period.
The House’s approval moved the bill to the Senate.