A bill that would allow jurisdictions across Virginia to use cameras to catch red-light runners was referred back to committee today, likely killing it for this year.
House leaders opposed to the legislation took the unusual step of sending the unchanged bill back to the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee, which had narrowly approved it Friday. Supporters of the measure were surprised and upset at the parliamentary move, saying it was designed to sidestep a vote that they had worked years to obtain.
"They didn't want to be on board to show yea or nay," said Del. Michele B. McQuigg (R-Prince William), sponsor of House Bill 1696. "The bill wasn't treated fairly, and I don't think the people's business was treated fairly."
McQuigg and others said the 51 to 46 vote probably spells the demise of the bill, though Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) vowed to employ his own parliamentary moves to keep it alive.
"I'm going to look for a bill that can be creatively amended," Marshall said. "If there's another vehicle out there, we'll find it."
Those who voted to send it back to committee said they did so over concerns that the cameras are something akin to Big Brother in the George Orwell novel "1984," about an all-seeing government. Others complained that the burden of proof ought to remain on government, not residents nabbed by the cameras.
"We will jeopardize centuries of fundamental liberties" if we allow the cameras, said Del. Robert Hurt (R-Pittsylvania) in the relatively brief but tense House debate on the measure.
"It still raises concerns about constitutional safeguards," Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William) said in an interview, adding that the bill will "more than likely not come back this year."
Supporters said the measure would help prevent traffic deaths. Marshall invited lawmakers to an intersection a mile from his home.
"A woman and her child were broadsided there. They're dead now," Marshall said in support of the bill. He urged lawmakers not to kill the bill, or at least to let their actions be "an informed homicide."
Cameras are used at intersections in much of the Washington region, including some parts of Northern Virginia that have specific authority from the state to use them. The programs are generally praised by law enforcement officials, who say they reduce accidents and save lives. But they have drawn criticism from drivers who complain that they are poorly administered.
Today's action marks a quick and dejecting turnaround for supporters of "photo red," who were excited Friday after getting the legislation through the militia committee for the first time in years.
McQuigg has submitted a proposal for the past several years and said she thought she had addressed all the concerns this time. For instance, the legislation would require 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 also would have to give a minimum 0.3-second grace period between the time a light turns red and cameras record violations. Jurisdictions would have to put on public hearings before installing cameras and put up signs to alert drivers.
House members who voted to send the measure back to committee said they want more constitutional protections. "It's a better rewrite than what we've seen in the past, but it still raises concerns," Rollison said.
McQuigg said she doesn't know what more proponents can do to make the bill more palatable to opponents. "The committee will probably take it up when there are enough votes on the other side," she said.
A Senate committee easily approved legislation similar to McQuigg's this month. Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has not taken a position on "photo red" bills, a spokesman said.
Staff writers Michael D. Shear and R.H. Melton contributed to this report.