Bipartisan Coalition Looks to Take Down Traffic Cameras

Dresden House Republican Andy Holt said earlier this year he was hoping for bipartisan support to do away with Tennessee traffic camera enforcement.

And he appears to have it.

Led by Holt, Sens. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, held a press conference Tuesday morning to pitch the “Tennessee Freedom From Traffic Cameras Act” and lay out their opposition to camera enforcement.

Holt’s bill is scheduled to be heard Wednesday afternoon in the House Transportation Subcommittee and the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee.

HB1372/SB1128 would prohibit local governments from entering into any contract “to provide for the use of any unmanned traffic enforcement camera” to enforce traffic violations. House Democrat Darren Jernigan of Old Hickory is also a co-sponsor.

“The rule of law, the integrity of law enforcement and the court system in our state, must be preserved,” Holt said.

Holt called the use of camera citations “fundamentally flawed,” and pointed out that the language of the law itself said a traffic camera alone would not provide enough evidence to charge someone with a moving violation.

He also said camera enforcement denies a person the right to face their accuser and the presumption of innocence that “form the bedrock of our judicial system.”

Additionally, there’s been a problem where “the municipalities and the companies involved actually lower the time of the yellow lights” so that they can gather more revenue, said Gardenhire, the primary Senate sponsor. However, he noted, much of that revenue goes to the company running the equipment, and the cities keep very little.

Referring to the initiative as “bipartisan,” Harris pointed out the differences between himself and Holt — “I’m a very proud liberal Democrat, he’s a very proud conservative; I’m from a city, an urban center, and he’s from a less urban center; I think he has a farm, and I’ve never been on a farm.” — but explained they were able to find a common ground on opposing traffic cameras.

Similarly, in a late February press release announcing Harris as a co-sponsor of the legislation, Holt indicated himself and Harris were “total polar opposites politically,” but were “linking arms on a huge issue” to many of their constituents.

“These things in my view are un-American,” Harris said. “Because in America, we’ve got the tradition that you are innocent until proven guilty, and red light cameras fly in the face of that.”

Harris added that traffic camera programs like the one in Memphis “undermine the quality of life” of the citizens, and “make them mad at government.”

Holt and Harris both admitted to reporters they have had some personal involvement with camera enforcement.

The proposal’s proponents also argued that if safety was the goal, red light cameras do a poor job of meeting that. A majority of peer-reviewed studies on the effectiveness of traffic cameras “have shown that cameras actually lead to more accidents, and disincentivize cities to seek safer engineering practices as alternatives because of, unfortunately, the almighty dollar,” Holt said.

However, if past attempts to repeal the legislation and opposition from local governments with camera enforcement contracts are any indication, doing away with camera enforcement looks like an uphill battle for the bipartisan group.

And shortly after Holt first announced his intentions in January, a pair of Middle Tennessee Republican lawmakers both criticized the move, and said that the decision for whether or not to deploy traffic cameras was better handled by local governments.

The legislation’s fiscal note indicates that while it will not significantly affect state coffers, local revenue would be decreased in excess of $978,000.

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

In 2010, Tennessee’s then-Attorney General Robert Cooper issued an opinion that found the use of red light cameras was constitutional.

In 2011, the Legislature passed a law that regulated traffic camera use statewide. That legislation clarified that for an infraction to occur, the motorist has to have entered the intersection following the light change. The law also ended the practice of ticketing drivers for a right turn on red, unless explicitly posted.

And in 2012, a Knox County judge ruled against an effort by traffic camera operators to overturn the 2011 law due to a decline in their revenue.