I like traffic lights, but only when they’re green. Today’s Courier Herald Column:
While much of the political world is shifting their focus to the horserace (train wreck?) that is the Republican Presidential nomination, the workings of state and local politics soldiers on. Many disinterested voters have nationalized their entire political thoughts to the point that President Bush is still being blamed for pot holes in their streets, or that President Obama is the only one that can get their local schools straight.
Yet the tedium of managing issues that directly touch our everyday lives most often falls to state and local governments. The issues are often ignored by the majority of population, scurrying about the hectic pace of their schedules, often too busy to slow down for red traffic lights.
Many of these disinterested Georgians become citizen advocates when they receive their first traffic light citation in the mail. Cities across Georgia, including many in the metro Atlanta area, Athens, Dalton, Rome, Savannah, Tifton, and Thomaston, among others, added the cameras during the early part of the last decade as a vital matter of public safety. They also, conveniently, produced a little bit of revenue at no cost to the municipality.
However, some state lawmakers, Representative and now Senator Barry Loudermilk (R-Cassville) chief among them, cried foul when they learned that local jurisdictions has lowered the amount of time lights spent on yellow, thus increasing the odds a motorist would be unable to react and stop in time to avoid a citation. Many intersections were also seeing an increase in rear end accidents where motorists were stopping quickly and unsafely to avoid the red lights.
As a result, the state added a minimum time required for each light to spend on yellow, as well as other criteria for an intersection to be approved for enforcing tickets through cameras. The result of adding the additional time to yellow lights caused two interesting phenomenon: The number of tickets issued and revenue to municipalities dropped, causing many cameras to lose money; and probably not coincidentally, the number of cameras operating began to decline.
The argument over safety appeared quickly trumped by cost when the red light cameras ceased to be a net positive revenue generator for each city.
With the proliferation of red light cameras stunted, a Broward County Florida Judge has issued a ruling that may give opponents of red light cameras in Georgia the ammunition to have them removed altogether. According to Miami’s Local10.com, the web presence of Miami’s ABC network affiliate, the judge ruled that the cameras violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, and the Florida Constitution. The judge ruled that the state cannot have two distinct punishments for the same offense.
In Florida, as in Georgia, citations issued by a camera result in a civil fine, but no points are awarded on a driver’s license. Yet if the same violation is written up by a police officer, the penalty may include points or worse. Georgia code section 40-6-20(a) establishes the fine for running a red light as a misdemeanor, which can mean up to one year in jail. Yet code 40-6-20(f) says that red light violations caught by a camera can be punished by nothing more than a $70 civil fine.
The result in Florida is that the judge has declared that police cannot write tickets for motorists running red lights, which will certainly be reviewed by a higher court. The Florida Attorney General plans to fight the judge’s ruling.
In Georgia, however, the case has the opportunity to re-open a bitter battle between some state lawmakers and municipalities who have grown somewhat reliant on the revenue from their camera networks. Those lawmakers may now be aided by the courts.
Georgia clearly has two standards of punishment for the same offense on its books. Expect an enterprising attorney armed with evidence of municipalities removing cameras operating at a loss while keeping those generating positive revenue to aid the legislators in their fight to have all such cameras removed.
For now, consider this a horse race of a different kind: Will a new court challenge to outlaw red light cameras be issued before a new bill to eliminate them can be presented in the 2012 session of the Georgia General Assembly?