Highway Bill Would Bar Funding for Traffic Cameras

By Steff Thomas

Oct. 23 — Motorists may no longer have to watch their backs for hidden traffic cameras if a House highway bill passes.

A provision buried in the surface transportation authorization bill (H.R. 3763) would bar states and localities from spending federal dollars on automated cameras that catch drivers speeding or running red lights. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted Oct. 22 to approve the bill.

Currently, 441 communities in the U.S. utilize red-light cameras and 140 use speed cameras, while 27 states do not use the enforcement tools at all, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Supporters say the cameras can be effective tools in deterring violators and promoting safety.

“They reduce traffic violations and car crashes and prevent serious injuries and even death,” said Russ Rader, senior vice president of communications for IIHS. Insurers generally support highway safety measures as a way to drive down the cost of claims.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported more than 2.3 million intersection-related crashes in 2008 resulting in 733,000 injuries and 7,700 fatalities. And a 2005 report from the National Forum on Speeding said speeding contributes to about one-third of all fatal traffic crashes in the U.S. and costs society an estimated $40 billion annually.

Reliability, Motives Challenged

However, the automated enforcement cameras have drawn intense criticism around the country, with opponents saying they infringe on privacy and are intended mainly to raise revenue. The reliability of the cameras has also been challenged in some jurisdictions.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), who introduced a stand-alone bill (H.R. 950) in February to bar most automated enforcement cameras, said he was pleased to see the provision in the House highway bill.

“I've heard a lot about this issue from my constituents who believe this technology is mostly used to generate revenue rather than for safety,” Perlmutter told Bloomberg BNA.

Like the authorization bill, Perlmutter's measure—which was referred to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee but has not been taken up—would include an exception for cameras in school zones. Perlmutter's bill also would allow cameras in construction zones.

State Prohibitions

According to the Governor's Highway Safety Association (GHSA), 13 states have banned speed cameras and 10 have prohibited red light cameras.

The GHSA has advocated the use of automated enforcement “to enforce speeding, red light running and other traffic violations.” The organization declined to comment on the House bill, but in general has urged states to enact legislation allowing law-enforcement officials to use these technologies.

But the association also has said use of the automated enforcement cameras should be limited to “high crash sites” and “situations where traffic law enforcement cannot be deployed safely,” and should not be used to raise revenue for the law enforcement. The GHSA policy, published on its website, also states that cameras should not replace traffic officers or hold drivers liable for problems with road maintenance, construction zones or misplaced road signs.

To contact the reporter on this story: Steff Thomas in Washington at sthomas_ic@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com