The speed cameras Akron began using in school zones after a young boy was killed pushing his sister to safety have prevailed against lengthy court challenges.
The program, though, might not survive a bill state lawmakers are considering that would put the brakes on most speed and red-light cameras.
The legislation, which has passed the Ohio House and will move to the Senate when lawmakers return from summer recess, includes an exception for cameras used in school zones. But cities would be required to place police officers in the school zones while the cameras are operating.
Akron officials say the city can’t spare officers to man the cameras that technicians from a private company now supervise.
“We’d probably lose it,” Akron police Lt. Richard Decatur said of the camera program he oversees. “I don’t have six officers to sit in school zones every day.”
Most of the big cities in Ohio, as well as several smaller municipalities that use either speed or red-light cameras (or both), are watching the bill with great interest. Susan Cave, who heads the Ohio Municipal League, said cities cite studies that show the cameras have decreased accidents — and potentially saved lives. She said the cameras have helped cities save money during a time when local and state resources have dwindled.
“They have allowed a better use of well-paid, highly trained personnel in their communities who could be out doing other types of safety work that require their physical presence rather than sitting at the corner watching people run yellow lights,” she said.
Backers of the law, a list that includes Republicans and Democrats, say the cameras should be outlawed to protect residents from excessive fines levied against them without the due-process rights people receive when they get a ticket from an officer.
“You’re guilty and have to prove yourself innocent,” said state Rep. Zack Milkovich, D-Akron, one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “In Cleveland, it’s $100 per ticket. Poor folks. It has become troublesome when they are having a hard time making ends meet.”
Milkovich said he got a call from a man who got two speed-camera tickets in a week in Akron, where the fine also is $100 each.
“That can sneak up on you if you’re not paying attention,” he said.
In September 2005, a hit-skip driver struck 10-year-old Tony Swain as he walked his 6-year-old sister to school. He pushed her to safety, but couldn’t avoid the car. The driver has never been identified.
The highly publicized incident led to several changes, including more prominently marked crosswalks at the intersection at Lover’s Lane and Hammel Street, where Swain was killed, and speed cameras in school zones across Akron.
At the time of Swain’s death, a committee of Akron officials already was studying the use of cameras to enforce traffic laws. After the incident, Mayor Don Plusquellic asked Assistant Law Director Steve Fallis if the technology had proven reliable in other cities.
“I don’t want another Akron child killed,” Fallis recalls the mayor telling him.
Fallis told the mayor the cameras had worked well in other cities. Plusquellic asked him to draft legislation allowing the use of speed cameras in Akron, but only in school zones.
“I did not know I’d be defending it for 4½ years,” Fallis said.
Kelly Mendenhall, the wife of Akron attorney Warner Mendenhall, was among the first to get a citation from the new speed cameras. The Mendenhalls, along with another local attorney, challenged the constitutionality of the program.
The legal battle wound its way through federal and state courts, with the program ultimately upheld.
“We fought it as hard as we could,” Warner Mendenhall said.
Akron initially contracted with Nestor Traffic Systems Inc. to operate its cameras. Nestor was acquired in 2009 by American Traffic Systems Inc. (ATS), based in Tempe, Ariz., which took over Akron’s service.
The city has issued between 11,000 and 14,000 citations each year for the past five years, generating between about $640,000 and $770,000 a year. Out of each $100 citation, ATS receives $19.
Akron’s share of the money is put into a Safety Fund. The money has been used for the installation of yellow flashing lights, salaries for crossing guards and officers assigned to Akron schools, according to Stephanie York, the city’s spokeswoman.
The tickets are civil and less severe than criminal citations officers issue for speeding in school zones. Drivers who receive criminal citations must pay about $200 in fines and court costs, get two points on their driver’s licenses and might see their insurance premiums rise.
“A ticket from a speed camera as opposed to an officer is almost a break,” Decatur said.
Akron has six cameras that rotate among the city’s 68 school zones during the restricted hours before and after school. Decatur decides where the cameras should go, based on ATS data and input from teachers, parents, officers and neighborhood residents.
An ATS technician sets up and takes down the cameras and remains in the school zones while they are operating. An Akron police officer examines the photos to determine if a citation should be issued. ATS then mails out the citation.
The city has an administrative hearing process for those who want to appeal a ticket.
City officials and officers think the cameras act as a deterrent for drivers, who pass a school zone sign, yellow flashing lights and a photo enforcement zone sign before getting to the cameras.
“If the cameras are out, people slow down,” said Decatur, who has noted a difference in driving between school zones with and without cameras. “They don’t want to get a ticket. I think the cameras are definitely working.”
The motivation for the state legislation was a small village in southern Ohio accused of using its speed cameras as a revenue booster.
A Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judge earlier this year found Elmwood Place’s speed camera program unconstitutional. The village is appealing.
This case prompted two Cincinnati-area lawmakers, Dale Mallory and Ron Maag, to introduce a bill banning all speed and red-light cameras.
“Photo-monitoring devices are overreaching their intended purposes and should be removed,” Maag, R-Lebanon, said in a news release on his website. “This bill is a bipartisan effort to protect Ohioans from the overuse of these excessive fines.”
Mendenhall was among those who testified in favor of the bill, characterizing the cameras as “money grabs” for cities that result in an uneven application of traffic statutes across Ohio.
“This is an unfair way to tax citizens,” he said. “We want to have the law be the same throughout the state instead of a patchwork quilt.”
Cave, of the Ohio Municipal League, said the cities suggested as a compromise with lawmakers that the state establish standards for the operation of the cameras.
“Unfortunately, that was discarded by proponents of the ban,” she said.
The only change lawmakers accepted came in an amendment from Nick Celebrezze, D-Parma, that made an exception for speed cameras placed in school zones as long as police officers are present. That’s how Parma operates its cameras.
Akron officials say these restrictions wouldn’t be an option for the city.
Decatur said he would love to have officers in school zones more often, but seldom is he able to spare personnel for the task.
Akron has two traffic officers in the morning and three in the afternoon. When there’s a crash during the morning or afternoon rush hour, those officers must respond.
Decatur said about 2 percent of drivers who go through school zones exceed the speed limit, which means “most people are following the law.”
If the bill is adopted, Plusquellic predicts another round of lawsuits, much like what happened with Akron’s program initially. He’s annoyed that state lawmakers are telling cities how they can regulate traffic.
“It’s typical of state government that talks about Washington making all the decisions,” he said. “Here they are making the decisions on everything — oil and gas, residency. They are big Washington on steroids.”
Officials with ATS, which says on its website that it has customers in 300 municipalities in Ohio and Canada, didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Cave agrees that litigation is probable, with the cities and camera companies braced for battle.
“It could be from both places — communities on the basis of how the legislature is impinging on local control and companies that have a problem with contracts entered into for a period of time,” she said. “How do you violate one of these multiyear contracts if you stop using them right in the middle? It’s a possibility.”