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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Legislators need caution on red light camera bills

Perception isn’t reality, but it’s good enough for two Washington state lawmakers who want to curtail the fines for motorists who are caught on camera running red lights.

Sen. John Kastama, D-Puyallup, and Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, have introduced the bills. The House version states that the fine can be no more than $25. The Senate bill reduces the fine to the level of local parking violations. The purpose of the bills is to dissuade the use of red light cameras, because some people view them as “cash cows” instead of tools to enforce safety.

Well, are they? The legislators provide no evidence, except to offer vague allusions to “reports” that the purpose has changed. Hurst alleges that municipalities are shortening the length of yellow lights to catch more speeders to pad law enforcement budgets. He has no evidence, just highly charged rhetoric: “This is not Tijuana. This is Washington state.”

He also likened cities to junkies and red light cameras to crack cocaine.

There is no evidence that cities are raising huge sums, but the lower fines would ensure that the costs of installation and operation would exceed the amount collected. From Nov. 1, 2008, through Oct. 31, 2009, the city of Spokane netted $103,000 from Photo Red. The “profit” went into an account for traffic safety.

It’s too soon to tell if public safety has been improved. We believe greater publicity and promotion would help deter drivers. Certainly something needs to be done. A total of 5,690 tickets have been mailed to red light runners. That’s an alarming number of dangerous acts, and it’s absurd to equate them with something as benign as a parking violation.

If the program does not meet the goal of improving public safety, then the city can decide to discontinue the program. Cities can also act if the “cash cow” charge is proved to be true. But legislators shouldn’t be dictating the future of red light cameras based on suspicions.

Cities can handle it. Kastama and Hurst ought to yield.

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