A bill that would allow many more Virginia jurisdictions to use surveillance cameras to catch red-light runners was narrowly approved in a key House committee today, clearing a major hurdle and setting up a floor debate over whether the cameras improve safety or violate privacy.
By a vote of 12 to 10, the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee approved House Bill 1696, which would permit localities statewide to put the cameras at traffic lights after fulfilling requirements that include holding a public hearing and putting up signs to alert drivers.
Supporters say the cameras would make traffic flow more easily, improve law enforcement efforts and prevent accidents. "This saves lives," said Del. Michele B. McQuigg (R-Prince William), sponsor of the legislation. "This will get people to think that red means stop."
Opponents say the cameras are a violation of privacy, won't stop red-light runners and are used only to raise money. Others also contend that the cameras flip the burden of proof from the government to citizens and unfairly penalize car owners, not necessarily red-light runners.
The cameras raise "serious questions of constitutional protections and individual rights," said Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William). "Most jurisdictions want [the cameras] to enhance revenues rather than enforce safety."
Cameras are used at many intersections in the District, Maryland and Virginia. The District's program has been praised by law enforcement officials but has drawn considerable criticism from drivers who complain that it is unfairly administered. Use of the cameras in Virginia has been limited to a few localities, including Alexandria and Fairfax City, because of concerns from state lawmakers.
The House committee's approval surprised many legislators today, who noted the frequency with which the committee has killed similar legislation.
McQuigg included restrictions that supporters said helped win passage. The bill requires that no photo-monitoring programs be used solely to make money, that a police officer administer the tickets and that localities do a safety analysis of intersections before putting up the cameras. The systems must also give a minimum 0.3-second grace period between the time a light turns red and cameras record violations.
"Michele worked the safeguards in there," said Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William). "This is a good law enforcement bill."
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has not taken a position on "photo red" bills, said spokesman Kevin Hall.
A similar bill was approved by the General Assembly three years ago but was vetoed by Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R). A Senate committee easily approved legislation similar to McQuigg's this month.
Drivers "are out there maiming people with their cars by running through these lights," said Sen. Martin E. Williams (R-Newport News). "Short of having a full-time police officer, there's nothing you can do.
"If the local governments abuse this, we'll take it away from them," Williams added.
Legislators predict a vigorous floor debate in the House, where many leaders oppose the bill and a number of rank-and-file members support it.
House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), one of the nay votes in committee, likened the cameras to "George Orwell's 'Big Brother' " in the novel "1984," about an all-seeing government.
Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said he was surprised that the bill cleared committee and plans to vote against it on the House floor. "If someone's going to run a red light, this won't do anything about that," he said.
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.