State’s stoplight camera bill is way out of focus

This is a fairness issue. It’s as simple as that. Two bills in the Michigan House would amend state law to allow municipalities to place cameras at certain intersections to catch people who commit traffic infractions, such as running a red light.

Photos would be taken of the license plates of the vehicles and tickets sent by mail to the owners.

The plan is flawed.

While Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, chief sponsor of one of the bills, says their purpose is to improve safety at dangerous intersections, the legislation could easily be used to squeeze more money out of taxpayers. Municipalities are starved for cash and could be tempted to fleece citizens. The cameras would be nothing more than a tax instituted without allowing voters a voice in the matter.

Revenue from the fines would be split 50-50 between the local municipality and the state.

Under the legislation, communities would be allowed to pass an ordinance installing the cameras at specific intersections. They would be required to consult with law enforcement officers and traffic engineers before approving the ordinance. A law enforcement officer would also be required to review the photos and decide if citations should be issued.

Despite those safeguards, the system is ripe for abuse. There is no oversight to ensure that communities fully document the need for cameras.

The inclusion of a police officer in the process is good but a patrolman at the scene would be much better. An officer present during the violation is in a better position to determine any extenuating circumstances and then use discretion on whether to write a ticket.

The program could turn cautious drivers into paranoid ones every time they approach a monitored intersection. Speeding motorists usually attract the attention of a patrol officer and are pulled over. That’s different from penalizing a driver who misjudges a traffic signal by a fraction of a second and is otherwise driving legally.

The fines are stiff and the penalty for not paying them, as is the case for most traffic violations, is harsh.

Tickets are $130 but a driver also could be required to pick up the expenses for operating the cameras, pay an assessment for the installation costs and then be charged an administrative fee.

People will have only 30 days to pay the fine or face losing their vehicle registration or the ability to sell their vehicles or renew their driver’s licenses.

In addition, the citations could hike auto insurance premiums for those ticketed, something most people can’t afford, especially in Detroit, where insurance rates are among the highest in the nation.

The bill also flies in the face of our criminal justice system, which presumes a person is innocent until proven guilty.

When a vehicle is photographed as violating the law, it is presumed the owner is driving it. An individual must go through an extensive process to prove someone else was behind the wheel.

The legislators are going home for the summer and won’t be back until September but, like a bad penny, so will this proposal. It should be discarded, with very little time spent debating it.