CINCINNATI – Two local state representatives say they are optimistic that their bill to ban controversial speed- and red-light cameras in Ohio will speed through the state Senate.
But don't expect it to be easy - not with local governments and camera companies out to protect tens of millions of dollars in annual revenues.
House Bill 69 took the first step Tuesday when Rep. Dale Mallory (D-Cincinnati) and Rep. Ron Maag (R-Lebanon) gave sponsor testimony to the Senate State Government and Reform Committee.
After a few more hearings with proponents and opponents, they expect it to move through the committee to a full Senate vote.
The bill passed the House 61-32 in June.
“I’m very optimistic it will move through after the committee hears from the people,” Mallory said. "This is a bipartisan effort. We've heard from everybody - rich and poor, big and small. The municipalities say they're going to protect you from yourself and you wake up to find a camera on the corner."
Mallory said the only opponents who spoke against the bill in the House were “mayors, police chiefs and camera companies.”
“It’s funny – (opponents of the bill) talk about safety, but we didn’t hear from one traffic engineer,” Mallory said. “Safety starts in the community. Safety starts with people. The people should decide how their communities are protected.”
“If you look around the state,” Maag said, “everywhere citizens got to vote on the cameras, they booted them out - except in Cleveland, where they passed due to clever wording of the law, where a no vote meant yes and a yes vote meant no.”
Mallory and Maag reject the argument from municipalities like Elmwood Place and New Miami that they put up the cameras to promote traffic safety. The legislators say it’s all about making money.
They point out that Elmwood Place’s speed cameras issued nearly $1.8 million in tickets in the six months they operated before Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman ordered the village to shut them down.
Ruehlman called the cameras “a scam motorists can’t win” and ruled that they violated due process.
“That’s the other problem with these things,” Maag said. “When a police officer stops you, they have a lot of discretion to decide whether to give you a ticket or not, depending on the circumstances. There’s no discretion with these cameras.”
House members amended the bill to allow speed cameras in school zones during opening and closing times and recess, but the bill requires a police officer to be present.
“It’s important that an individual still has the opportunity to talk to a police officer,” Maag said.
Across the country, few states have laws banning cameras, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, and camera use is growing overall.
Speed cameras are banned in 12 states; red-light cameras are banned in nine.
See the GHSA report at http://www.ghsa.org/html/stateinfo/laws/auto_enforce.html
Communities with traffic cameras, or automated enforcement, have increased more than fivefold in less than a decade, with red-light cameras in 530 municipalities and speed cameras in 125, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Mallory and Maag have an ally on the Senate committee in Bill Seitz (R-Green Township), who supports the bill.
“I know Sen. Seitz is going to be trying to move it,” Maag said. “I would imagine it would move very quickly.”
WCPO could not reach Seitz for comment on Tuesday.
But there is likely to be opposition from the Columbus, Cleveland and Toledo areas, where cameras bring in big bucks and officials say statistics prove they reduce crashes.
In Columbus, which has 38 cameras, officials reported a 74 percent drop in broadside crashes and a 25 percent decrease in rear-end collisions from 2008, when the first cameras were installed, to 2011, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
Some bill opponents contend it would be better to regulate the cameras than to ban them, Mallory said.
He dismissed that.
“I don’t know how we regulate the system after it’s gone so far down the road,” he said. “There are a couple of thousand people who have outstanding tickets. They have been vilified, pursued and threatened with having their credit ruined and their cars towed.
“How would regulating the system help them, unless you think of ticket amnesty as a first step?”
Ruehlman’s ruling also raises the potential for additional legal challenges, Mallory noted.
Attorney Mike Allen, who represents hundreds of motorists ticketed in Elmwood Place, has asked for class-action status in order to consolidate all 7,000 to 10,000 cases, according to his estimates. Ruehlman has said he would rule on that Oct. 22.
“You can be sure other municipalities are watching what’s happening in Elmwood,” Mallory said. “It a humongous mess.”
And the camera companies, which share ticket revenues with the local governments, are sure to put up a fight. Optotraffic, which operated the cameras in Elmwood Place and New Miami, takes 40 percent of the pot.
Senate President Keith Faber
(R-Celina), who voted in favor of a similar bill a few years ago, told the Dispatch, “I can’t predict there are the votes to get it done.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.