One-thousand-one. One-thousand-two. One-thousand-three.
Now say it with me: One-thousand-four.
That single extra second, imposed by the Legislature on the amber light of traffic signals, has suddenly caused cities across the state to rethink the use of red-light cameras.
Five cities in Gwinnett County have announced they would suspend their programs or abandon them altogether. Rome has joined them, and others are sure to follow.
The fourth yellow second, one more than the federally recommended minimum, went into effect on Jan. 1. It applies to any traffic signal monitored by a camera.
Municipalities report drastic drops in the numbers of citations issued. Which means the cameras — they can cost $100,000 a year and more to operate — are no longer self-sustainable.
Critics of the unblinking eyes are gleeful. “I think it has finally proven that it is all about the revenue that is being brought in, more so than about safety,” said Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Cassville), sponsor of the extra second and other restrictions that passed last year.
Georgians are of two minds when it comes to red-light cameras. The technophile in us likes the binary efficiency. Trip the wire and pay a fine. No waste of taxpayer-fueled manpower.
More important, highway stats show that red-light cameras reduce those highly dangerous T-bone crashes, among others.
But the Big Brother aspect troubles many of us. Red-light cameras were first approved by the state Legislature in 2001. Lawmakers immediately prohibited camera shots of the driver.
Privacy issues, they said. In particular, some worried about photographs that might include one’s driving companion. Photographs that might be sent home with the ticket, in an envelope opened by a spouse who wouldn’t understand why you were at a particular intersection, at a particular time of night, with a particular passenger riding shotgun.
Loudermilk, a fifth-year lawmaker, has no worries about being caught in bad company. But because red-light cameras merely photograph the license plate on the rear bumper, the owner of the car who wants to escape a ticket must prove that he wasn’t the driver. And that’s unconstitutional, Loudermilk maintains.
The North Georgia lawmaker also doesn’t like the idea of law enforcement used as a cash machine. Loudermilk said he added the fourth second to yellow lights after he was told by a Department of Transportation engineer that local governments could increase collections by shaving the time.
Red-light cameras have plenty of defenders. “It’s still about safety. The cameras have worked,” said Amy Henderson, spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association. Many cities and counties operate them at a loss, she said. Leftover cash often goes to public safety improvements.
“If the revenue helps you buy a jaws-of-life, is that such a really bad thing?” Henderson asked. Gov. Sonny Perdue, she noted, is pushing increases in fines levied on “super-speeders” to fund a million-dollar state trauma network.
But clearly, temptation exists — with or without technology. On the web site operated by Norcross is a Feb. 5 memo written by Police Chief Dallas Stidd. The city’s two red-light cameras have reduced accidents by a third, but the one-second addition to yellow lights has resulted in an 80 percent decrease in tickets issued. That won’t cover the $398-a-day cost.
“Traffic safety and enforcement go hand-in-hand, being one of the highest priorities for the city, especially in thse difficult times,” Stidd wrote. Two new traffic officers would cost less than the cameras, he said, and would generate $602,050 a year — more than twice the sum raised by the cameras.
Norcross City Manager Rudolph Smith, to whom the memo was addressed, said the police chief’s suggestion never went further than the paper it was written on. Officers will not be hired to generate operating funds.
And as far as Smith is concerned, the drop in tickets issued is due to the fact that the cameras worked. People learned to live with them.
For instant updates, follow me on Twitter.