Cameras not cops: when machines enforce the laws

A new Georgia law lets schools deploy automated speed-detection cameras in school zones. Advocates say that could lead to better compliance when no officer is around.

A new Georgia law lets schools deploy automated speed-detection cameras in school zones. Advocates say that could lead to better compliance when no officer is around.

The distracted driving law that took effect July 1 got lots of attention, but it’s not the only new tech-related law that could affect behavior on the roads.

Drivers routinely pump the brakes when they see a police officer with a radar gun, but speed enforcement in school zones no longer requires a human. House Bill 978 lets schools deploy automated speed-detection cameras, which advocates say could lead to better compliance when no officer is around.

So far, no districts have applied with the Georgia Department of Transportation for a permit, though Clayton County Public Schools said it has a meeting with the agency later this month and the DeKalb County School District said it’s in the “infant stages” of considering the cameras.

The legislation passed with backing from American Traffic Solutions, an Arizona-based company that installs and operates such cameras. The company contributed to the campaigns of several of the lawmakers involved, and House Speaker David Ralston's son, a lobbyist with a firm hired by the company, pushed for the bill. It passed in the chaotic waning moments of this year's legislative session.

Lawmakers stressed the need for safety in school zones; there were at least three fatalities in metro Atlanta school zones in the last school year.

Still, some are concerned the cameras could proliferate for the wrong reason.

“Do we want to keep kids safe? Absolutely,” said Barry Babb, the sheriff of Fayette County south of Atlanta. “But you want to be careful it doesn’t become a revenue machine.”

The fine is $75 for a first offense and $125 for each thereafter, with the proceeds going to police and public safety initiatives.

The shift to automated enforcement of traffic laws has caused conflict in some other states, where drivers have been filing lawsuits.

Larry Kuznetz, a lawyer in Spokane, Wa., is representing a driver who claims the automated speed enforcement there was implemented illegally. The suit contends a camera was placed outside the official boundary of a school zone and produced bad tickets for several years.

“You can’t be ticketing people when you haven’t followed the law,” Kuznetz said. A lot of money is at stake: he’s seeking class-action status, and said cameras at two schools produced citations that resulted in $4 million in revenue for the city.

While automated enforcement can be lucrative for local governments, it isn’t all gravy: authorities must assign sworn officers to process the citations.

That’s why Cathedral City, Calif. recently cancelled its red-light camera enforcement contract with American Traffic Solutions. Two police officers had to work full-time following the citations through court, said Shelley Kaplan, a city council member. Between that and the vendor cost, there was little money left over, he said.

The main selling point of the cameras is enhanced safety, something the company highlights in studies posted on its website. Yet Kaplan said the number of crashes hadn't really changed in his city. Indeed, he said, some cars were rear-ended because they stopped before turning right at a monitored traffic light.

Surprisingly, then, Kaplan said he liked the idea of automated cameras in school speed zones, something his city doesn’t have.

“It would seem to me that if people were aware that the cameras were there and that they could get a speeding ticket, they would actually pay attention,” he said.

American Traffic Solutions addresses what Kaplan described: Even if rear-end collisions do increase as a result of automated red light enforcement, the company says on its website, the number of deadly collisions — the kind that occur when drivers punch the gas to beat a yellow light — typically falls.

Gov. Nathan Deal signed HB 978 into law after getting a letter from the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, warning that the incidence of crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists spiked 53 percent over the decade from the mid-2000s. Automated speed enforcement is efficient, fair, cost-effective and safe, Rebecca Serna, the organization’s executive director, wrote. “It will save lives — of children, of families, of crossing guards — by preventing speeding.”

Even Kuznetz, the Spokane lawyer, acknowledged the technology works.

“We’re not disputing the accuracy or the efficiency of the equipment itself,” he said.

And American Traffic Solutions gives officials who deploy their cameras a winning argument: “They’re arguing that it’s about safety for kids,” Kuznetz said, “which I think everybody agrees with.”

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