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Traffic Camera Talks Restarted

Arguments still rage over how, when or if local law enforcement should be using the unmanned surveillance equipment. Questions remain as to whether the devices are demonstrably effective at improving road safety, or if they are even constitutional.

Legislators say they’re going to give debate over stoplight cameras another go next year. But they are not sure how far down the road they’ll get toward sending a bill to the governor’s desk.

The Senate Transportation Committee met for nearly two hours Tuesday to hear the latest traffic safety statistics from major metro police departments using traffic cameras to ticket drivers who violate driving laws.

The issue’s been something of a political flash point for some time now. Lawmakers last formally discussed the subject seven months ago.

Arguments over how, when or if local law enforcement should be using the unmanned surveillance equipment to spy on motorists involve a range of disagreements and competing perspectives.

Among them are questions about the essential purpose of the image-recording devices — whether cameras at intersections are used more for preventing accidents or as tools to boost local government revenues. And if safety is the priority, are they demonstrably effective?

There are further debates over how much oversight the companies that make, install or maintain the equipment ought to be subject to, and whether people who’re ticketed as a result of camera-based evidence are being afforded their full spectrum of rights, including that of being able to confront and question their accusers.

Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper has issued more than one opinion, most recently last February, indicating he see no legal problems with traffic camera use.

The Senate put the breaks on a bill that made it through the House of Representatives last session. The reasoning cited was that Senators needed more time to study the issue because they weren’t particularly involved or kept apprised of the legislation development.

The Senate Transportation Committee plans to continue studying the issue in 2011, according to its chairman, Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville. He said his committee would start from scratch instead of building on language from the House bill. Tracy is “not sure” whether any legislation will get the green light for floor votes by the time lawmakers break for the year.

“I want to make sure it’s a safety issue,” said Tracy after Tuesday’s meeting. “I want to look at statistics at these intersections where we’ve got data from Murfreesboro and Chattanooga and Knoxville and see if actually accidents have gone down and there’s been safety there.”

For now, lawmakers are mulling over the prospect of standardizing traffic camera practices across the state, such as by limiting the total amount traffic violators can be charged, capping the number of cameras used or mandating that private companies operating the equipment not be paid per violation.

On the other hand, some lawmakers are still flat-out opposed to them. State Sen. Mae Beavers contends that traffic cameras are simply unconstitutional. “I’ve always had a problem with them and I always will,” said the Mt. Juliet Republican, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee.

There are no guarantees what will happen, said. Sen. Andy Berke, a Chattanooga Democrat. Lawmakers may ultimately vote to standardize the cameras. Or, they may vote to ban them altogether, he said.

“I don’t assume they’re here to stay at all,” Berke said, adding that he expects traffic-camera discussions in the Tennessee Legislature to continue for years, not months.

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