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Camera Can Freeze Red-Light Runners City Studies Systems That Photograph Car, Driver

Mon., June 3, 1996

Running a red light could become a Kodak moment.

With three people killed in the last month by drivers running red lights, the Spokane City Council may let a private company install automatic cameras at some problem intersections.

The cameras, in bulletproof boxes, would activate when a car enters an intersection after the light turns red. Cars that go into intersections on green or yellow lights would not be photographed.

Three companies offer nearly identical systems, called “photo-red” systems, at no cost to taxpayers. They make money by snagging a share of the fines collected from light-runners.

Other cities that use the systems have seen their violations drop between 70 percent and 90 percent, said Lt. Glenn Winkey of the Spokane Police Department, who will brief the City Council on photo-red systems during tonight’s council meeting.

The council likely will vote on a specific proposal sometime this summer.

At the same time, council members may consider installing photo-radar, a combination automatic camera and radar gun used to catch speeders.

Photo-radar was tested in Spokane in 1992 but rejected because the city did not get federal money to pay for the system. Also, prosecutors were uncertain they could make tickets stick, since officers didn’t witness offenses, and pictures couldn’t prove the car was going over the speed limit.

Many drivers complained photo-radar - dubbed “cop in a box” by some - smacked of Big Brother.

Arguments against the system haven’t changed.

“Some of us aren’t yet convinced photo-radar is the way to go,” said Councilman Jeff Colliton, a member of the public safety committee studying both systems. “But we are convinced that photored is the way to go.”

Spokane Police in April said they were cracking down on people who ignore red lights.

Three days later, a man was killed while riding in a car that ignored a light and hit a school bus. A woman and a teenage girl died May 25, when their cars were hit by a pickup that ran a red light.

“I don’t think there’d be anybody in Spokane who would argue that we don’t have a red-light problem,” said Winkey.

Police believe the legal issues that plague photo-radar would not exist with photo-red, said Winkey.

Most photo-red systems take two pictures. The first shows the car and its license plate. It documents how long the light was red when the picture was snapped.

The second picture shows the driver’s face, to prevent offenders from arguing in court that someone else was behind the wheel.

“The officer would develop probable cause (that the driver ran a red light) by observing the film,” rather than witnessing the violation, Winkey said.

Winkey said the public safety committee hasn’t decided how many intersections would be equipped with camera boxes. Cameras could be moved from box to box, so drivers wouldn’t know which intersections were being photographed.

Ron Blake, a traffic engineer in Jackson, Mich., said five or 10 people a week are caught running red lights at the two Jackson intersections equipped with cameras. The number was 50 to 60 a week when the system was installed five years ago.

Unlike Washington, Michigan law prohibits issuing tickets to violators caught on film, Blake said, so the city sends warning letters instead.

“We’ve occasionally had a person say, ‘I didn’t do that,”’ said Blake. “Then they come in and view the film and say, ‘Oh my God, I ran a red light.”’

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: The risk of running red lights

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