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Police praise red-light cameras while opponnents remain critical

Mary Woods says she's been driving for 40 years with only four traffic citations during that time. Earlier this month she was headed north on Fourth Street near Mount Vernon when she passed through a series of traffic lights.

"It was at 9:45 at night and all of a sudden there was this huge red flash and I thought it was a police car," Woods says. "So I pulled over to the curb and no police car came and that's when I remembered they talked about putting up cameras at intersections where people ran red lights."

Later Woods got a politely-worded warning in the mail. The letter, with the Columbus Police Department's "Focus on Safety" red-light camera logo at the top, came in an envelope with a Scottsdale, Arizona return address. If Woods' red light encounter had occurred a few weeks later - after the camera's 30-day grace period - she would have been billed $95.

City officials have repeatedly said the cameras are not being installed to make money. But State Representative James Raussen, who introduced a bill last fall targeting their use, disagrees. He says there's "red light camera fever running across Ohio," and it's fueled, he says, by profit.

"This idea has the incentive of really trying to increase revenue because if you're really trying to reduce accidents at intersections you want less infractions," Raussen says. "And yet the contract is skewed in such a way in Columbus and most cities in Ohio that the cities benefit when more tickets are issued.

Columbus' contract stipulates that up-front costs are paid by Redflex, and in return, the company gets most of the money generated by red-light runners. After a certain number of infractions are recorded, the city's share of each fine increases. But profit, according to police spokeswoman Betty Schwab, has nothing to do with their use. She says the only purpose for red light cameras is to reduce the rate of accidents.

"Our whole issue is safety," Schwab says. "If we just reduce the number of property damage accidents, if we can reduce obviously injury accidents and fatalities, then it's, I think, a win-win situation for everyone."

Critics, including Representative Raussen, wonder why only a few intersections identified as Columbus' most dangerous are being fitted with cameras. The city counters that it's not the number but the kind of accidents it wants to prevent, like the "T-bone" crashes that occur more often when drivers run red lights. If Raussen's bill in its present form becomes law, Ohio cities would have to prove the cameras did reduce accidents or the devices would have to be moved.

The unusual public-private coalition required to sanction and operate the red light camera system is troubling to groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. The Rhode Island chapter has called camera-issued fines "kickbacks" that may actually persuade governments away from finding ways to make intersections safer. Of concern to Representative Raussen is the levying of fines by people outside of Ohio government.

"You have people who have not taken oaths of offices, people who are not abiding by the constitution of the State of Ohio who are deciding who is getting a civil fine and who isn't," Raussen says.

Two Columbus police officers have been assigned to review photographs sent to the department by Redflex and approve or disapprove a violation. But unlike citations issued by an officer, the city says it keeps no records of people caught by the cameras. The only source of that information, a police employee said, is Redflex. A Redflex employee said such information can only be released with the city's permission. Police spokeswoman Betty Schwab says there's a difference between a police officer's citation and a violation caught on camera.

"What you're receiving is not a citation," Schwabb says. "It's a notice of infraction; it's more of a civil matter.

"That's why you can have a company like Redflex issue the notice. But because it is a traffic law that you are disobeying, that's why we need the officer there to make sure that is a good red-light running," Schwab says. "And that's where that officer comes into play, whether to approve that citation or not and again we don't really like to call that a citation, because it's not. It's nothing that you're breaking the law on our part. It's a civil liability."

Beginning April 6, the owners of vehicles who run red lights will be billed $95 for each incident. No points are assessed and no report is made to the owner's insurance company. The city has hired an attorney as an arbitrator for those who dispute their fine. If it goes unpaid, the bill will be turned over to a collection agency.