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Plan to Ban Traffic Cams Not Universally Supported in Legislature

Rutherford County lawmakers Mike Sparks and Jim Tracy say state should leave matters to local governments, voters

He hasn’t even filed the bill yet, but Rep. Andy Holt is facing opposition within his own party on his plan to eventually ban traffic enforcement cameras.

Holt, a Republican from Northwest Tennessee, argues that cameras used to ticket motorists for speeding and running red lights “have very little to do with safety, and everything to do with municipal greed.” And he believes they violate the United States Constitution.

But two Middle Tennessee GOP lawmakers — Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville and Rep. Mike Sparks of Smyrna — recently told the Daily News Journal that whether or not city and county governments use traffic cameras is a local control issue.

As the upper chamber’s Transportation Committee chairman, Tracy is an influential voice on legislation that affects the Tennessee roadways. He doesn’t think traffic cameras “should be regulated by the state.” And for that matter, he doesn’t fancy even taking the issue up again so soon after the General Assembly passed legislation in 2011 that established a “framework” for “local communities to use” when it comes to deploying traffic cameras.

Tracy acknowledged in the article that some local officials might abuse the practice. But others, such as Murfreesboro, are using it “in the proper way” to ensure safety.

Likewise, Sparks maintains that the cameras improve safety — something Holt disputes. Anybody who doesn’t like traffic cameras in their community should raise the issue with local politicians — and the state should stay out of it, he said.

“I don’t like them, but I do think they save lives,” Sparks told TNReport Tuesday. He added that he’s had a close call himself when someone ran a stoplight in front of him. The practice is also safer for cops who face the danger of being hit by a passing car when they have to write tickets on the side of the road, he said.

“I’m tired of the federal government telling us what to do, and I’m sure the locals are tired of us telling them what to do. So, if you don’t like their decision, vote them out of office,” said Sparks, who will serve as vice chairman of the House Local Government Committee.

Sparks said he doesn’t have any traffic cameras in his district. One thing he is open to considering is legislation to better protect people’s due process rights when it comes to paying the fine.

Like Rep. Holt, he doesn’t like that out-of-state companies that own the cameras are profiting off traffic violations in Tennessee. Sparks said he wishes “the revenue would be kept in Murfreesboro, rather than going over to a private company in Arizona.”

Murfreesboro’s police chief recently praised the city’s program on the grounds that it has improved safety. And while $2.5 million in traffic camera fines remains unpaid — one-third of the $7.5 million in issued citations — the city council voted to renew the contract for another year.

But not all local governments have used their programs “in the proper way.”

In 2008, a municipal judge ordered the City of Chattanooga to repay $8,800 in fines paid by 176 motorists when it was discovered the yellow-light cycle was about one second shorter than required by law.

The General Assembly passed legislation in 2011 to regulate the use of traffic cameras across the state, which clarified an infraction hasn’t occurred unless the motorist enters the intersection after the light has turned red. The law also put a stop to ticketing motorists for turning right on red, unless a sign is posted specifically prohibiting a right-turn-on-red.

In 2012, a Knox County judge ruled against traffic camera operators in their effort to overturn the 2011 law due to a significant decline in collected revenue. The companies argued that a right turn on red should remain a ticketable offense in municipalities they had contracts with prior to the 2011 law. According to a Knoxville Police Department captain, from July to December 2010, their traffic cameras issued 58,000 citations, but only issued 8,000 citations during that same time period in 2011.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, nationwide there are 607 communities using speed and red light camera enforcement, 24 of which are in Tennessee.

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