AUGUSTA, Maine — It’s been two years since Maine banned the use of red-light traffic cameras to catch those who don’t stop at intersections, but a Maine lawmaker says that was a mistake and has introduced legislation allowing the devices.
“They have been proven to save lives in places that are using them,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Joe Brannigan, D-Portland.
He said recent data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found the devices saved 159 lives in the 14 largest cities that used the cameras over a four-year period.
“If cameras had been operating during that period in all cities with populations of more than 200,000, a total of 815 fewer people would have died,” the report concluded.
It said that since 2000, the number of cities using the red-light cameras has increased from 25 to more than 500 today.
But the legislation is likely to be as controversial as the 2009 law that banned them.
Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, the only Democratic senator on the Transportation Committee, said he has serious concerns with the measure.
“We are really creeping close to the edge in terms of Big Brother,” he said. “I think that will raise a lot of concerns and will be a major debate.”
Diamond said he is leaning against the measure, which would allow police to issue tickets based on the camera evidence.
He also appears to be right that the measure will be controversial; the Maine Civil Liberties Union is opposed to the measure as infringing on civil liberties.
“In a free society we have an expectation of privacy, that the government is not watching our every move,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the MCLU. “Red light cameras contribute to a network of surveillance that makes us feel less free.”
She said the organization has consistently opposed the expansion of the use of surveillance cameras by government organizations. She also questioned the Insurance Institute study, arguing other studies have shown the cameras can have the opposite impact in terms of safety.
“There are several studies, and they show that often municipalities change the timing of the yellow light when they add cameras and that can cause more accidents,” she said.
The Insurance Institute study disputes that claim and argues most communities properly adjust the yellow light to work with the red light camera.
“Somehow, the people who get tickets because they have broken the law have been cast as the victims,” said Institute president Adrian Lund. “We rarely hear about the real victims, the people who are killed or injured by these lawbreakers.”
Brannigan said this is not the first safety measure that started out with a lot of resistance. He sponsored the original seat belt legislation, and he acknowledged it took a long time to get that measure fully in place.
“It took a long time, but I pushed that for the same reason as this bill — it saves lives,” he said.
Diamond said there has to be a balance of competing interests, and just because a measure may save lives does not mean it is prudent.
“We could save a lot of lives if we did not let cars go over 20 miles an hour,” he said.
Brannigan said the government already uses surveillance cameras for a variety of purposes, from security at public buildings to traffic monitoring. He said the Maine Turnpike Authority uses a camera system to catch drivers who do not pay tolls and his legislation would allow similar equipment at intersections where municipalities believe they have a problem.
Rep. Rich Cebra, R-Naples, the House co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, said it is different to have a camera at a toll booth than covering an intersection, and he believes such cameras are clearly an infringement of civil liberties.
“This goes way too far for me,” he said. “And I think it will be way too far for most in the Legislature.”
Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, is the Senate co-chairman of the panel. He said he would wait for the public hearing before he decides on the legislation.
“But this is about public safety,” he said. “If we have intersections where people are going through red lights, then we have to do something about that because people’s lives are at stake.”
He said the panel has not scheduled a hearing on the bill, but it likely will occur in March.