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TDOT Suspends Interstate Construction for Easter Holiday Traffic

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Transportation; April 4, 2012:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Department of Transportation will suspend all interstate construction work this Easter weekend in anticipation of increased holiday travel.

TDOT crews and contractors will stop all road construction work that requires lane closures beginning Thursday, April 5 at 6:00 p.m. through Monday, April 9 at 6:00 a.m. This will provide maximum roadway capacity to motorists expected to travel across the state this holiday weekend.

“Suspending interstate construction in Tennessee during the Easter holiday will permit a free flow of traffic,” said TDOT Commissioner John Schroer. “This should lessen travel interruptions for the many motorists traveling on our roadways to spend time with their families this holiday weekend.”

Motorists will still encounter some long term lane closures on construction projects that will remain in place. While lane closure activity will be stopped, some workers may be on site in construction zones and reduced speed limits will still be in effect. Motorists are urged to adhere to all posted speed limits, especially in work zones, for their own safety. Slower speeds are necessary in work zones due to the temporary layout of the roadway and will be enforced.

Updated travel and construction information can be found on the TDOT SmartWay website at www.tn.gov/tdot/tdotsmartway or you may call 5?1?1. You can also receive traffic alerts via TDOT’s multiple Twitter feeds, including statewide traffic tweets @TN511 or any of TDOT’s other Twitter pages. Smartphone users can use the TDOT SmartWay Mobile website at http://m.tdot.tn.gov/SmartWay/ to access TDOT’s SmartWay cameras, messages displayed on overhead Dynamic Message Signs, and information on construction related lane closures and incidents on interstates and state routes.

As always, drivers are reminded to use all motorist information tools wisely and Know Before You Go! by checking travel conditions before leaving for their destination. Drivers should never tweet, text or talk on a cell phone while behind the wheel.

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Press Releases

Traffic Fatalities Over New Year’s Weekend Down from Last Year

Press Release from Department of Safety and Homeland Security; Jan. 10, 2012:

Lowest Number of Traffic Deaths on Record During New Year’s Period

NASHVILLE — Preliminary reports indicate two people were killed during the New Year’s holiday weekend, compared with six fatalities during last year’s holiday period. Statistics for the 2011-2012 New Year’s holiday reflect the time period from 6 p.m., Friday, December 30, 2011, to midnight Monday, January 2, 2012.

There were two fatal crashes during the 2011-2012 New Year’s holiday period. Both were single vehicle crashes, and both victims were not wearing safety restraints. Alcohol was a factor in one of the crashes.

If preliminary figures hold true, the latest New Year’s holiday period statistics resulted in the lowest number of traffic deaths since last year’s record when six people were killed on Tennessee roadways. Last year, the official holiday period was also a 78-hour period.

The highest number of fatalities recorded during the New Year’s holiday period occurred during the 78-hour period in 1970-71, when 19 people were killed in Tennessee traffic crashes.

State Troopers were on routine traffic patrol and conducted more than 60 sobriety and driver license checkpoints across the state during the New Year’s holiday period. During that time, 80 people were arrested for driving under the influence. Troopers also issued 3,526 citations, including 1,228 for speeding and 242 for seat belt and child seat violations.

This year’s 78-hour Christmas holiday period resulted in eight vehicular fatalities, compared to six traffic fatalities during the 2010 Christmas holiday. Six (75%) of the fatalities were alcohol-related and four (57%) vehicle occupants were not wearing safety restraints.

Preliminary holiday statistical reports, including the locations of where the fatal crashes occurred over the 2011 Christmas and 2011-2012 New Year’s holiday periods, are attached with this release. Please note the official traffic fatality count may rise due to delays in reporting and classification of traffic fatalities.

The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security’s mission is (www.TN.Gov/safety) to ensure the safety and general welfare of the public. The department encompasses the Tennessee Highway Patrol, Office of Homeland Security and Driver License Services. General areas of responsibility include law enforcement, safety education, motorist services and terrorism prevention.

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Stoplight Camera Legislation a Go?

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy said he’s hopeful legislation will come out of the General Assembly this year that enacts uniform statewide regulatory standards governing the operation of traffic cameras by local law enforcement agencies.

The Shelbyville Republican told TNReport recently that after two years of start-and-stop discussions he believes there’s been enough on-the-record examination and deliberation of the issues involved to green-light legislative action this session.

Tracy indicated he opposes kicking the can down the road by sending the issue back into study-committee mode.

“It is a complicated issue, no question about that,” said Tracy. “But the more I got into it, the more I realized we do need to come up with a uniform policy.”

While Tracy said he does hear voices advocating that cameras be outlawed altogether, there’s enough support among local cops and officials that an outright statewide ban  — at least of the busy-intersection surveillance variety —  probably isn’t in the cards.

He added, though, that he perceives substantially more citizen anger and steadfast opposition directed specifically at speed-enforcement cameras.

Under legislation Tracy said he’d likely support, counties and cities could still ban red-light or speed cameras within their jurisdictions if pressured to do so by their constituents.

“I have met with communities across the board, and I want to make sure (camera-use) is about safety, and not about revenue enhancing,” said Tracy, who, along with House Transportation Committee Chairman Phillip Johnson, R-Pegram, will play a key role in moderating traffic camera debates and molding whatever legislation might ultimately alight on Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk.

Tracy said he’s open to supporting legislation that prohibits local jurisdictions from entering into agreements with camera vendors wherein the company is paid a per-ticket fee by the city or county.

“Even though they may not be doing it as an incentive to write more tickets, (in) the perception of the public it is,” said Tracy. “So if the community would pay a monthly fee to the vendor, instead of on a per-ticket basis, it takes that out of the question. Of course, some of the folks are not going to be happy with that.”

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety this week released a study (pdf) claiming that red-light cameras save lives.

According to an IIHS press release:

Red light cameras saved 159 lives in 2004-08 in 14 of the biggest US cities, a new analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows. Had cameras been operating during that period in all large cities, a total of 815 deaths would have been prevented.

…Looking at the 99 US cities with populations over 200,000, the researchers compared those with red light camera programs to those without. Because they wanted to see how the rate of fatal crashes changed after the introduction of cameras, they compared two periods, 2004-08 and 1992-96. Cities that had cameras during 1992-96 were excluded from the analysis, as were cities that had cameras for only part of the later study period.

An article critical of the study also appeared this week that suggested IIHS employed an “overly simplistic (research) method” and purposefully skewed the findings to support the political objectives of major automobile insurance firms that support the organization.

A recent review of traffic camera safety by The Economist showed inconclusive effectiveness.

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Liberty and Justice News

Traffic Camera Talks Restarted

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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Study: Texting Bans Don’t Reduce Crashes; May Actually Increase Them

From the Highway Loss Data Institute, Sept. 29, 2010:

ARLINGTON, VA — It’s illegal to text while driving in most US states. Yet a new study by researchers at the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) finds no reductions in crashes after laws take effect that ban texting by all drivers. In fact, such bans are associated with a slight increase in the frequency of insurance claims filed under collision coverage for damage to vehicles in crashes. This finding is based on comparisons of claims in 4 states before and after texting ban, compared with patterns of claims in nearby states.

The new findings, released today at the annual meeting of the Governors Highway Safety Association, are consistent with those of a previous HLDI study, which found that banning hand-held phone use while driving doesn’t cut crashes. HLDI is an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

HLDI researchers calculated rates of collision claims for vehicles up to 9 years old during the months immediately before and after driver texting was banned in California (January 2009), Louisiana (July 2008), Minnesota (August 2008), and Washington (January 2008). Comparable data were collected in nearby states where texting laws weren’t substantially changed during the time span of the study. This controlled for possible changes in collision claim rates unrelated to the bans — changes in the number of miles driven due to the economy, seasonal changes in driving patterns, etc.

“Texting bans haven’t reduced crashes at all. In a perverse twist, crashes increased in 3 of the 4 states we studied after bans were enacted. It’s an indication that texting bans might even increase the risk of texting for drivers who continue to do so despite the laws,” says Adrian Lund, president of both HLDI and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

HLDI’s new findings about texting, together with the organization’s previous finding that hand-held phone bans didn’t reduce crashes, “call into question the way policymakers are trying to address the problem of distracted driving crashes,” Lund adds.

“They’re focusing on a single manifestation of distracted driving and banning it. This ignores the endless sources of distraction and relies on banning one source or another to solve the whole problem.”

(Read the rest here)

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House Sends Traffic-Camera Legislation to Senate

The Tennessee House of Representatives Thursday gave the green light to state-imposed restrictions on local governments’ use of traffic surveillance cameras.

The proposed restrictions came in the form of an amendment attached to a bill that would expand the services automobile clubs are able to offer to their members.

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Joe McCord, R-Maryville, would place three new limitations on those governments that use traffic surveillance cameras.

First, it would limit fines for violations at a maximum of $50, it would cap fees such as late fees at a maximum of $50, and it would prevent those receiving tickets from a traffic violation captured by a traffic surveillance camera from being charged court costs unless the ticket is actually challenged in court.

The amendment would also prevent law enforcement from turning in violations captured on the cameras to the Department of Safety, insurance companies or credit agencies.

Finally, the bill as amended would prevent governments from installing new cameras on highways that are maintained using state funds unless the specific location of the camera is approved at two separate hearings by a local legislative body.

The fine and fee limits would be effective July 1, 2011, to prevent the bill from affecting the budgets of local governments. The other limitations would take effect as soon as the bill becomes law.

Some legislators, such as Rep. Frank Nicely, wanted to do more to hamper or halt the use of the cameras.

“We’re quickly becoming one nation under surveillance,” said the Republican from Strawberry Plains. “There’s 300 million Americans and about 50 million surveillance cameras, and we don’t need to go there. You can’t believe them, but we’re beginning to believe them as the truth.”

The sponsor of the overall bill, Rep. Charles Curtiss, a Sparta Democrat, called the restrictions “small, fine-tuning adjustments” and “tweaks” to current law regarding traffic surveillance cameras. To go much further could lead the Senate to killing the legislation, or the governor to veto it, he said.

As a result, several other amendments filed to limit the cameras were withdrawn at the request of Curtiss and Republican Leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol, who asked members to put off any further restrictions until next year.

The bill passed on a vote of 91-3, with the only “no” votes coming from Democrats: Reps. Kent Coleman of Murfreesboro, George Fraley of Winchester, and Mary Pruitt of Nashville. Reps. John DeBerry of Memphis and Brenda Gilmore of Nashville, also Democrats, registered themselves on the tally board as “present but not voting.”

The amended bill now goes to the Senate. It is the only traffic surveillance camera legislation to make it through either chamber of the General Assembly this year.

A comprehensive bill to regulate the cameras had been advancing through the House after Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, brought together a number of interested parties who eventually reached a compromise. The bill suffered a setback in the House when it was “placed behind the budget,” meaning it could be taken back up if there is funding for the bill after the state budget is passed. The legislation was later killed in the Senate, however, when some senators complained they were not part of the committee Harmon formed to draft the compromise legislation.

Several other bills dealing with traffic surveillance cameras were dropped after Harmon’s bill was killed.

Some legislators were already talking on the House floor Thursday about bringing the issue back up next year, though.

“Hopefully, next year we really (will) address this,” said Rep. Ulysses Jones, D-Memphis. “Our communities are not happy with this, and a lot of legislators here are not happy with this, and I think it’s very intrusive.”

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Liberty and Justice News

Traffic Camera Legislation Promised, But Not Before April

The House sponsor of a proposal to regulate red-light traffic cameras made assurances this week that he’ll try to pass some form of the bill this year.

However, nobody should expect any legislative action for another six weeks, said Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap.

He made the announcement Tuesday as he asked the Public Safety Subcommittee to forward the current version of the bill to the full House Transportation Committee.

Harmon said he wants to sit on the bill until April 1 so that agencies and groups like the Department of Safety, Department of Transportation, the Municipal League, sheriff and police chief associations and traffic engineers can attempt reaching an agreement on a final version.

Whatever they come up with will be made available well enough in advance so lawmakers can study it before having to vote on the bill, said Harmon.

Harmon said if the group does not finalize recommendations by April 1, he’ll push all bills related to traffic cameras.

“If that’s not putting the pressure on, I don’t know what,” he continued. “I’m disappointed we can’t move this bill as-is, to be honest with you.”

Rep. Chad Faulkner, R-Luttrell, asked Harmon if he’s fully committed “to do something after April 1.”

“If I do not have something brought to this committee by April 1, I’ll be asking you pass the bill I had originally without their recommendations,” Harmon responded.

Under Harmon’s current proposal, no government would be allowed to enter into, or renew, a contract with a private red-light camera vendor for two years, except for the traffic camera on Hixson Pike in Chattanooga. In addition, fines for first time violators would be reduced from $50 to $10.

In the end, the legislation could hinge on a state attorney general’s opinion Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport has requested.

Among Shipley’s questions for the Tennessee Department of Justice:

  • Do alleged red-light violators have a right to confront their accusers, as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?
  • Do the camera systems replace the presumption of innocence with the presumption of guilt?
  • Do the systems create a lack of uniformity in traffic laws throughout the state, which could potentially create a lack of equal protection?

Shipley, who submitted the requested opinion on January 9, said he’s received no word as to when the opinion will be delivered.

A spokeswoman for the Attorney General Robert Cooper declined questions, saying all requested opinions are “confidential” until they are released on their web site.

Shipley, who said red-light camera systems are operating in his Kingsport-area district, indicated he’s neutral on whether or not they ought to be banned in Tennessee.

“I’m against them if they are unconstitutional,” he said. “Anecdotally, they have saved lives.”

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Liberty and Justice News

Seeking Consensus on Traffic Cameras

Instead of slamming the brakes on red-light traffic cameras, House Transportation Committee members have tentatively agreed to try and hash out a three-part proposal to guide and regulate their use instead.

The rough plan, which includes a series of studies and a possible moratorium on new red light cameras, would give lawmakers more tools – and time – to decide the ultimate role the new technology will play in Tennessee communities.

Still, a number of lawmakers haven’t backed off their basic objections with the red-light cameras, saying both that the photos they take subvert civil liberties and that the private camera-vendors collect too much profit off the issuance of violations.

But the hope is to approve one comprehensive plan and move it through the Legislature, according to Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, who chairs the committee.

The panel batted around ideas Wednesday, including a plan by Maryville Republican Rep. Joe McCord to shuffle profits from citations to drivers education or trauma services statewide.

McCord, a vocal opponent of red light cameras, introduced legislation last year banning the technology. He has since dropped the ban, saying he now sees a safety value of the system, but he’s still uncomfortable with how the ticket-generated revenues are divvied up.

Many on the 12-member House Transportation Committee agree that the private traffic-camera service-providers currently have too much unchecked, profit-driven power over motorists.

The vendors capture alleged violations on camera, examine the pictures, cross reference the information with the Department of Motor Vehicles, then mail out the citations. In return, they receive the lion’s share of fines collected.

Harmon wants the state comptroller to take a hard look at the traffic cameras and report back to lawmakers on issues like what impact the systems have on vehicle crashes, the make-up of traffic-camera service contracts, and detail as to how citation revenues are spent.

Harmon also wishes to see the state Department of Transportation conduct an engineering study on each intersection proposed to use a traffic camera, and added he hopes to ban all unmanned speed cameras on state highways.

While many lawmakers on the panel generally seemed supportive of Harmon’s ideas, some still argue the cameras are unconstitutional and an invasion of privacy. “If it intrudes a little, it’s too much,” said Rep. Tony Shipley, a Kingsport Republican.

A study (pdf) by the free-market Tennessee Center for Policy Research released earlier this year argued that traffic-enforcement cameras are unwise, unnecessary and unsafe.

The City of Gallatin collected nearly $1 million in traffic citations linked to the traffic cameras in 2007, according to TCPR’s study. At least 16 Tennessee cities use some sort of traffic camera: Chattanooga, Clarksville, Cleveland, Gallatin, Germantown, Jackson, Jonesborough, Kingsport, Knoxville, Memphis, Morristown, Mount Carmel, Murfreesboro, Oak Ridge, Red Bank and Selmer.

“There’s a lot of money being made here,” said TCPR policy director Justin Owen, an attorney who co-authored the report.

Instead of installing cameras, he says lawmakers should require municipalities to extend the length of the yellow light, giving drivers more time to travel through the intersection instead of stopping short for fear of a traffic ticket.

“The mere presence of the watchful cameras encourages drivers to attempt to stop at yellow lights even if passing through the light would be safer. Coupled with a decrease in yellow light timing, this can readily explain the increase in the number of rear-end collisions that occur at intersections with red light cameras,” stated the TCPR report.

Rep. John Tidwell, an engineer from New Johnsonville, says he’ll push lengthening the yellow light next year.

The Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police maintains that the cameras help enforce the rules of the road, reduce crashes and generally improve safety, said Maggi Duncan, executive director. The association plans to push for the red light and speed cameras this legislative session.

The committee hopes to formulate an initial legislative proposal at their next meeting on Jan. 11.

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Liberty and Justice News

Lawmakers Focusing on Possible New Traffic-Camera Rules

Traffic cameras may be growing in popularity among local governments and law enforcement agencies across the country, but some state lawmakers are questioning whether they belong in Tennessee.

Some say the cameras – which snap pictures when motorists drive through a stop light – are simply a tool to raise money.

“There’s no doubt that in some places it’s not about safety. It’s about revenue,” said Rep. Richard Floyd, a Chattanooga Republican.

House lawmakers examining the use of the high-tech traffic enforcement tools plan on introducing bills next year that could create statewide guidelines on the sorts of intersections where cameras could be used, and lengthening the duration of a yellow light before it turns red.

New Johnsonville Democrat John Tidwell, a civil engineer, said yield signals made one second longer will help reduce vehicle crashes, and he hinted he’ll push that issue in the coming session.

Also under discussion are laws to prohibit speeding-enforcement and stoplight-cameras completely.

The cameras are typically operated by private companies that set up the equipment, snap photos, evaluate violations and mail tickets to vehicle owners. Those organizations also receive a chunk of the revenues collected by violators, which is adding to the unease and outright opposition some critics are voicing.

Red-light cameras are under fire right now in a lawsuit arguing that traffic enforcement systems are operating illegally because they’re not properly licensed. Other suits attacking the practice have cropped up around the country.

Lawmakers Tuesday heard from Gordon Catlett, a patrol-support commander for the Knoxville Police Patrol Division who is a supporter of the cameras – and threat of a ticket – to change driver behavior.

“A lot of us treat a traffic signal like a yield sign,” he said.

The Transportation Committee will meet again Wednesday morning to discuss possible alternatives to traffic cameras, and ways to tinker with the system already in place.