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Va. House Panel Cites 'Liberty' In Yanking Red-Light Cameras

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2005; Page A01

RICHMOND, Feb. 18 -- A House committee on Friday rejected legislation that would have allowed Virginia communities to continue using surveillance cameras to ticket red-light runners, signaling the impending end of the state's 10-year experiment with the technology.

The House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee defeated five Senate bills to extend permission to use the cameras beyond July 1. The monitoring systems are used in six densely populated jurisdictions in Northern Virginia and Virginia Beach.

_____Red Light Cameras_____
Privacy advocates say the cameras are unfair. Law enforcement officials say they make roads safer. Safety studies offer different results.
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The Cameras

What they are: For a decade, Virginia has allowed certain jurisdictions to use cameras to monitor compliance with traffic signals. Violators detected by the cameras receive tickets in the mail.

What happened: The House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety rejected five bills yesterday that would have allowed Virginia's experimental programs to continue beyond their scheduled expiration on July 1.

Supporters said: the cameras improve the safety of intersections. Studies show that they tend to reduce the number of dangerous side-impact collisions.

Opponents said: The camera technology is an invasion of privacy. Studies show that while side-impact collisions are down, rear-end collisions are up at the intersections. They attribute it to drivers stopping shorter because of the cameras.

Where: In Virginia, the cameras are used in Alexandria, Fairfax City, Falls Church and Vienna and Arlington and Fairfax counties. Virginia Beach also uses the technology. Maryland and the District also have red-light monitoring programs.

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Republican delegates who control the committee, many of whom come from rural parts of Virginia that have not used the cameras, said they had a duty to uphold basic rights for all Virginians.

"We have a responsibility to balance public safety against liberty," said Del. William R. Janis (R-Goochland). "Our job is to figure out where the lines cross for reasonableness between the compelling need and the absolute requirement to defend individual liberty."

Virginia is one of 16 states, including Maryland, in which red-light cameras are used. The District also uses them.

Supporters say the cameras are an important improvement in public safety, extending the reach of law enforcement officers and reducing the number of serious accidents caused by red-light runners. But their use has angered many motorists, who see them as a money-making device for government and an invasion of privacy.

"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 . . . the right to be left alone," said Del. C. L. "Clay" Athey Jr. (R-Warren).

Others pointed to studies that show that rear-end crashes increase at monitored intersections. They also said there were better ways of cutting down on red-light runners, such as extending the time of yellow lights.

"These cameras cause more accidents than they prevent . . . their own reports show that," said Jim Kadison, a member of the National Motorist Association, which has long fought the use of the technology.

Lobbyists for safety groups and Northern Virginia legislators, who also point to studies showing that more serious side-impact collisions decline at monitored intersections, said they hoped that they could find a way to have the action reconsidered by the House or amend a similar bill on the floor of the Senate.

"This is a step away from a reasonable safety measure adopted a decade ago that has saved lives in the intervening years," said Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun), who sponsored one of the bills.

But members of the House Republican leadership said they don't want the bills reconsidered.

"It was an experiment. . . . These people were not promised any longer than July 1," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), who has opposed efforts to extend the authority. "We gave them what we promised them 10 years ago, and now it's done."

"It would be extraordinarily difficult to resurrect these bills," said G. Paul Nardo, the chief aide for House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford).

Some of the Northern Virginia lawmakers saw the defeat of the camera bills as another rejection by legislators who are unfamiliar with the region's needs.

"There really continues to be a lack of understanding on how we live and who we are," said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington).

Del. J. Chapman Petersen (D-Fairfax), who is a member of the committee and voted for the bills, said: "People talk about Big Brother, but it's Big Brother when Richmond overrides local authority. I'm very disappointed. Very disappointed."

The Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee, generally conservative on issues involving personal liberty, is often used by a House speaker to kill bills that don't reflect the philosophy of the Republican majority, some delegates said.

"The speaker puts his most trusted people on there to take the hard-line Republican vote," Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) said. "The committee is stacked to reflect the position of the statewide party of public safety issues."

Staff writer Ian Shapira contributed to this report.


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