Caution raised on red-light cameras

Rep. Armey says the cameras, meant to monitor traffic at dangerous intersections, are a threat to privacy

Red-light cameras, touted as a high-tech means to monitor traffic at dangerous intersections, are being misused by police and are a threat to personal privacy, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said.

In a report issued June 25, Armey said city officials in San Diego used red-light cameras to generate $30 million from fines — not to make intersections safer. He said cameras were installed at high-volume intersections where yellow lights were short, making it difficult for motorists to stop before the light turned red.

"Putting cameras at locations with high volume and inadequate yellow time is not related to safety," said Armey, who has been railing against red-light cameras since May. In fact, the number of rear-end collisions have increased in some intersections equipped with the cameras, Armey maintains.

Armey, a conservative, argues that the cameras undermine the personal privacy of motorists and may violate rights guaranteed by the Constitution. "You cannot face your accuser in court and you're presumed guilty," said Richard Diamond, a spokesman for Armey.

The cameras pose an even more sinister threat, Diamond said. "Look at what's going on in Europe — they're about 10 years ahead of us in the use of cameras. In London, there's a camera on every corner. They track who you are, where you go, what time enter and what time [you] leave. That's going on right now."

For now, Armey is not proposing a ban on the cameras, but he is trying to conduct "a public-education effort," Diamond said. "Our opinion is that the more people know about these things, the less they will like them."

Even in an increasingly surveilled society, red-light cameras carry intrusiveness to new heights, Diamond said. Although people are routinely photographed at automated teller machines, in elevators, office buildings and convenience stores, "those are private systems that are not looking up your identity," he said. But cameras mounted at red lights do.

Armey launched his campaign against the cameras May 8 when he wrote a letter urging Interior Secretary Gale Norton to remove photographic radar cameras from roads in Virginia managed by the National Park Service.

"I'm committed to doing what it takes to make our roads safer, but not at the cost of our fundamental rights," Armey said. "Likewise, I am concerned that this may be seen as a step toward a Big Brother surveillance state, where the government monitors the comings and goings of its citizens."

On May 25, Armey released a report charging that localities were using short yellow lights to ensure there would be numerous motorists running red lights and a steady stream of revenue from fines.

In a report Armey released June 25, an association of lawyers from San Diego said that Lockheed Martin IMS, the company that operates such cameras in a number of cities, "selected intersections for placement of red-light cameras where the traffic volume was high and the yellow light was unreasonably short, rather than basing its selection decision on the number of accidents at each intersection."

San Diego suspended its camera program after legal action.

Armey says the use of the cameras "is a federal issue, not just a local one" because federal highway funds are often used to buy them.

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