Virginia's 10-year experiment with red-light cameras at traffic intersections expires next year, and it is uncertain whether it will be renewed.
A Virginia House committee hearing today should provide a strong indication of whether supporters have any hopes of extending the cameras' life in the upcoming General Assembly session.
The cameras, which automatically snap photos of vehicles when they run red lights, are favored by law-enforcement officials for safety reasons. More than 70 percent of motorists in AAA's Virginia surveys support use of the cameras.
But privacy advocates said the cameras are overrated, intrusive and unfair. They are preparing to lobby the legislature to ensure that it doesn't extend a 1995 law expiring July 1 that authorizes the cameras.
In the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee, bills to continue the cameras have failed. Three bills left over from this year's session still can be considered, including two that passed the Senate but languished in the House committee.
"Monday will tell the tale as a foreshadowing of how it's going to do" in the 2005 session, said Del. J. Chapman Petersen (D-Fairfax), a committee member. Even if the bills are killed or withdrawn, new legislation is expected in the new year, Petersen said, but if it is assigned to the same committee, its fate is unlikely to change.
The cameras are in use in Virginia Beach and six Northern Virginia communities: Alexandria, Fairfax City, Falls Church, Vienna, and Arlington and Fairfax counties. The law authorizing their use was drawn to ensure that a violation would not go on a driver's record, would not be used for insurance purposes and would not draw more than a $50 fine. Only certain urban jurisdictions were permitted to install the cameras, and in 1996, the expiration date was added.
"It's a great enforcement tool," said Bob Wall, traffic safety specialist with the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and a former traffic specialist with Fairfax police. "If you show there's a crash problem at a particular intersection, cameras are going to save lives, injuries, property damage. People running red lights do all of that."
In Fairfax City, one study showed a 44 percent drop in red-light violations at intersections where cameras had been installed. Police Chief Richard Rappoport said that "people develop an awareness the cameras are there" and are less likely to try their luck with a red light.
Signs promoting the cameras' presence extend drivers' caution to un-photographed intersections as well, Rappoport said. The study showed a 34 percent drop in violations at sites where there were no cameras.
But opponents of the cameras said there are other ways to improve safety without taking photos.
Eric Skrum, spokesman for the National Motorists Association, suggested improving lights and lines at intersections, extending the yellow light time and reevaluating the timing of lights to consider drivers' actual speed rather than the posted speed limits.
Skrum pointed to a AAA project in Detroit in which such changes were implemented. Crashes decreased 47 percent in the first two years at four test intersections.
"This is where state and local governments should be investing their resources, instead of installing cameras designed to further fleece motorists," Skrum said.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has done extensive studies on red-light cameras, including studies linked to the timing of the lights. "Even where the lights are correctly timed, people still run red lights," said Senior Vice President Stephen Oesch. "That's why we feel it's important to use automated cameras to detect red-light violations."
Mike Stollenwerk, chairman of the Fairfax County Privacy Council -- which is not affiliated with the government -- has been urging people to contact members of the House committee and ask them to oppose any bill that would extend the cameras' presence. He cited one study showing that the strobe flash of the cameras can cause drivers to stop in an intersection and create accidents.
Virginia's cameras launch communities on "a slippery slope" of privacy invasions, Stollenwerk said. "What's next? We become like D.C., with meters along the road to collect money?" he asked, referring to the District's anti-speeding cameras, "Or we leave the cameras on and track people's movements?"
In Virginia, AAA surveys found that 75 percent of drivers in central Virginia and 72 percent of Northern Virginia approve of the cameras, spokesman John Townsend said.
"They feel that red-light cameras make the road safer," he said.
"But some things they don't like," Townsend said. "They think they're not being installed for public safety uses but to raise money. They support it, but there's a mistrust of the cameras."
Del. James M. Scott (D-Fairfax), a member of the House committee, said the issue breaks down as "urban versus not urban."
"Some of the people in rural areas just don't particularly like government having a role in this whole arena," he said. "They have apprehensions about whether or not local governments can handle this kind of authority.
"I would hope the legislature would take its nanny hat off and let the jurisdictions do what's in their best interest," he said.
Del. Beverly J. Sherwood (R-Frederick), chairwoman of the committee, did not return calls, and a spokesman for vice chairman Del. Glenn M. Weatherholtz (R-Rockingham) said he was not available.
Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-Alexandria) said she favored the cameras and thought they worked well in her city.
But the struggle to extend the cameras' use has gone on for years, she said, "and there simply have not been the votes because of the way the committee has been packed."
Four of the 22 members are from Northern Virginia.