Red-Light Cameras Approved By House

The House of Delegates' vote to allow the use of cameras to photograph drivers who run red lights was described as a
The House of Delegates' vote to allow the use of cameras to photograph drivers who run red lights was described as a "very big day" for traffic safety advocates. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 6, 2007

RICHMOND, Feb. 5 -- The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval Monday to a measure that would allow local governments to use cameras to catch drivers who run red lights -- a victory for safety advocates who have long battled the Virginia General Assembly's distaste for regulation.

The photo enforcement measure would allow any county, city or town in Virginia with a population of at least 10,000 to install cameras to enforce traffic signal laws. It would replace an experimental program that expired in 2005 in six Northern Virginia communities and Virginia Beach.

Photo traffic enforcement has been hailed by safety advocates as an effective deterrent to unsafe driving. "This is a very big day," said Nancy Rodrigues, a lobbyist for driver education teachers.

But photo systems have their critics, too -- namely those who view the cameras as an unnecessary intrusion into their lives. That tussle, between public safety and personal liberties, has dominated the debate in a flurry of other legislation as well this year. And in a legislature dominated more than ever by the political might of urban, government-friendly Northern Virginia, the small-government philosophy is losing ground.

"A lot of us rural guys are still trying to keep government out of people's lives," said Del. Terry G. Kilgore, a Republican from Scott County, in the far southwestern corner of Virginia, who voted against the red-light bill. "But times are a-changin'."

For instance:

· The Senate approved on Monday a sweeping ban on smoking in most public places. Although a similar bill failed in the House this session, advocates of a smoking ban believe a smoking restriction is still possible this year.

· Traffic-safety advocates, including a conservative senator from western Fairfax County, James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. (R), held a news conference Monday to urge lawmakers to approve a bill prohibiting teenagers from talking on cellphones while driving. As with the smoking bill, a House version has been defeated, but O'Brien's version remains alive.

· The House of Delegates approved on Saturday a measure that requires that children be restrained in automobile booster seats until they are 8 years old, extending the age from 5. That bill has passed the Senate and now heads to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who is "likely" to sign it, spokesman Kevin Hall said.

Several developments are increasing the appetite for greater health and safety protections, lawmakers said.

First is a growing body of evidence of the harm of doing nothing. At Monday's news conference on teen cellphone use, for example, advocates cited state Department of Motor Vehicles data showing that every week an average of three teen drivers (ages 16 or 17) are involved in crashes in which a cellphone is listed as a contributing factor. In the smoking ban debate, even Philip Morris USA, the Richmond-based cigarette manufacturer that opposes more restrictive bans, acknowledges the health risks of inhaling secondhand smoke.

"The resistance in the past has been about not being the 'nanny' state," O'Brien said. "We wanted to let people make their own decisions. But in the face of empirical evidence, it's really hard to vote against this stuff."

O'Brien acknowledged that public opinion is another factor. Smoking ban advocates cite a statewide poll conducted in November showing that more than 70 percent of Virginians favor a ban. Such numbers are especially important this year, when all 140 legislative seats come up for election and when Republicans such as O'Brien have reason to be nervous about an electorate, particularly in Northern Virginia, that is increasingly turning to Democratic candidates who offer more, not fewer, government solutions.

That's a shift from little more than a decade ago, when former Republican governor George Allen was hailed for vetoing a bill that would have banned children from the backs of pickups.

Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax), who has pushed for a permanent photo enforcement policy since the experimental program expired two years ago, agreed that worries about "Big Brotherism" have waned in the General Assembly.

But she said practical considerations, rather than partisan concerns, have also played a role. House members were more amenable to her proposal this year because they view photo enforcement as the only practical way to enforce toll collection on high-occupancy toll lanes -- a potential major source of revenue for road building.

It would have been difficult for them to support that idea and not her proposal, too, Devolites Davis said.

The photo enforcement measure that came out of the House is broader than the Senate version. It would allow most Virginia local governments to use cameras to enforce traffic signals, whereas its counterpart in the Senate would apply only to the local governments authorized to do so during the 10-year pilot program.

Devolites Davis said she should have no trouble reconciling the two bills. Similar photo enforcement programs exist in Maryland and the District.

Reconciliation might not be as easy with the smoking ban bills. The measure approved Monday in the Senate is more restrictive than what emerged from the House last week. The Senate bill would establish an outright ban on smoking in most public spaces and workplaces, but the House bill merely requires restaurants that allow smoking to post a sign near their entrance saying so.

Whether the chambers can meet in the middle is unknown. Even if they don't, advocates said, even a little progress would be better than none.

"We're much farther than we were last year," said Sen. J. Brandon Bell II (R-Roanoke), chief sponsor of the more restrictive smoking ban. "The momentum is definitely on our side. The question is, in a short session like this, can we come up with something that both bodies can agree on."

Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.

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