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Published: Sunday, May 15, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Policy, politics far behind traffic-camera technology

On the police beat, I get a lot of calls from lawbreakers. They're often outraged that they've been ticketed, arrested, charged … you name it.

One of the common accusations is that traffic tickets are padding a city's pockets. Cops are just out for the cash, we are told.

We wanted to see if local government budgets really were being boosted by ticketing revenue. The results were surprising.

For example, I couldn't find any policy recommendations for local cities on how they should use tickets as a revenue stream. I checked state law, the Association of Washington Cities and the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington. Nada.

Turns out the topic is a bit of a frontier in terms of policymaking. And the reaction I got while poking around this part of city budgets was eye-opening. Some governments handed over numbers or had them available online. Others immediately were defensive and accused me of asking for all kinds of the wrong reasons. Others admitted they were curious to see how they compared to their neighbors.
Traffic-enforcement cameras are one of the most divisive topics in civic life today. It's hard to get a rational response out of either camp, those who stand behind the "Save Our Children" side, or those who see the cameras as a revenue-raking slippery slope of quasi-government intrusion. The two big private, for-profit camera companies -- American Traffic Solutions, Inc., and Redflex Traffic Systems -- both have contracts here and public relations campaigns that appeal to pathos above all.

This is an issue that our society is going to have to make some decisions about. It's arrived at a time when cities and governments are hurting for dollars. City employees, including cops and firefighters, are worried about their jobs, especially as property values don't seem to be going anywhere but down. No one likes to see layoffs, or closed parks, or shuttered departments.

The bare data that we pulled together is telling. The reaction to baring that information perhaps more so.

The cameras can make money in the name of safety, it seems.

The trouble is, we've yet to be provided any solid data or other evidence proving that cameras truly are improving safety here or changing drivers' behavior. Lynnwood, which has protested repeatedly during my reporting, has never once offered statistics about how its intersections with cameras have been affected. Are there fewer collisions? Fewer injuries and fatalities from crashes? Less lawbreaking? No one can say. The city points to national numbers, but they mean nothing in this context.

But people are watching what happens. So are we. This controversy, wherever you stand, could end up playing out in a big way, not just in our county or our state, but across the country.

When an issue means millions of dollars in our communities, we have the duty to ask questions and compare how cities stack up.

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