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A Frustrating Finish for Traffic Camera Proponents

Area Officials Express Dismay at Decision to Turn Off Surveillance

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page LZ05

Vienna Police Chief Robert A. Carlisle went down to Richmond and witnessed the vote himself. He sat in a House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee meeting and watched as state lawmakers eliminated red-light cameras at busy traffic intersections beginning July 1.

"I was just astonished at the decision, especially when we have 70 to 80 percent of Northern Virginians who support the technology," Carlisle said, referring to public opinion polls by AAA-Mid-Atlantic. "And you have 12 people in Richmond decide you can't do this. I think it's unfortunate."

Traffic on Lee Highway in Fairfax City passes a surveillance camera at Chain Bridge Road. (Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)

Carlisle may have been astonished, but he wasn't completely surprised. The committee in the House of Delegates had been signaling for months, if not years, its intention to abolish the 10-year experiment allowing 10 local governments -- eight in Northern Virginia -- to place automatic surveillance cameras above intersections to take photos of vehicles running red lights.

The program, which was approved in 1995 but began at various times in different jurisdictions, was set to expire July 1 unless lawmakers voted to keep it. But many rural lawmakers said they believed the surveillance cameras infringed on personal liberties.

At a meeting March 21 of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said the General Assembly rejected the renewal of the red-light program "as if it was an invitation to return to Soviet communism." The lawmakers, Connolly said, "looked at the issue from an ideological perspective rather than a public safety perspective."

Legislators from Northern Virginia endorsed the continuation of the programs but were a minority on the House committee that killed the project on Feb. 18. Republicans from Goochland, Warren and Grayson counties and the city of Salem wanted no part of the cameras.

"My concern with photo red has always been that we're starting to get into the area with our technology when we start to abridge fundamental rights," said Del. C.L. "Clay" Athey Jr. (R-Warren), including "the right to be left alone."

Six of the eight Northern Virginia jurisdictions have used the cameras in recent years and were unanimous in wanting to continue snapping photos of red-light violators and sending the photos to the drivers' homes with a notice asking them to pay a $50 fine. Slightly more than three-fourths of those who received the photos paid the fine, a recent state study showed.

Police say it wasn't about the money. In fact, three of the six governments that implemented the camera program -- the City of Alexandria, Fairfax County and the Town of Vienna -- lost tens of thousands of dollars annually because they did not collect enough revenue to cover costs. The other three -- Arlington County, Fairfax City and the City of Falls Church -- made tiny profits. Loudoun County and the Town of Herndon were permitted to use cameras but chose not to.

The hope was that the surveillance cameras would save lives and prevent injuries. Although proving a negative -- that fatal car wrecks didn't happen because of the cameras -- is difficult, police said they think the cameras were having an impact.

"We were hoping it would reduce serious crashes and red-light violations, and I think we accomplished that," said Alexandria police spokeswoman Amy Bertsch.

Arlington County Police Chief Doug Scott noted that the cameras not only allowed him to deploy officers elsewhere but established 24-hour enforcement at some of the county's most dangerous intersections.

"Now I'll have to reallocate [officers] for selective enforcement" at those intersections, Scott said. "We can't do it with the time and frequency that the camera does."

But opponents of the program said the presence of the red-light cameras actually caused more rear-end crashes from drivers trying to stop too quickly in order to avoid being photographed.

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