Red-light cameras presume guilt — and that's wrong

Tim Eyman, the initiative king, is leading a fight to stop the growing use of red-light cameras in Washington state.

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Walla Walla is often a bit behind when it comes to the latest trends.

Well, in the case of the hottest craze in traffic control - red-light cameras - it's good to be behind the curve. It's possible this nefarious fad will fizzle before officials here opt to jump on the bandwagon.

There's a movement brewing on the westside of the state - led by Tim Eyman, the initiative king - to do away with red-light cameras. These are the devices placed at intersections that snap a shot of the license plates of cars that have run red lights. A ticket is then mailed to the car's registered owner who is presumed responsible for breaking the law and is on the hook for paying the fine.

We have several problems with the robo law enforcement starting with its presumption of guilt.

Another is the motivation for putting the cameras in place. It is not to keep the streets safer but to collect a lot of fines. It's all about tapping into a lucrative revenue stream.

The revolt started last year in Mukilteo, a small city next to Everett where Eyman lives. He got on the ballot a measure to ban red-light cameras. It was a landslide as 71 percent of Mukilteo voters called for ban on the cameras. Now camera measures are headed for the November ballot in Longview, Bellingham and Monroe, and signature-gathering is under way in Redmond and Wenatchee, The Seattle Times reported.

All but the Redmond effort is now in court. But, to this point, the state Supreme Court has yet to rule on the matter so this is a battle being fought without much legal clarity.

The stakes are high.

"Washington is kind of becoming a battleground state, because I think the red-light-camera companies know that if they lose Washington, they'll probably lose the rest of the country," said state Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, a former police officer who says the camera revenue has become "crack cocaine" for cities.

The statistics seem to indicate that red-light cameras do reduce the number of accidents in intersections, although the figures have not been compiled over a long period of time. It's difficult to tell whether, over the long haul, the technology truly makes intersections safer.

In Seattle, cameras are used at 21 intersections and brought in $4.8 million in fines last year. A 2008 study - after the cameras had been in place for two years - found they didn't decrease crashes overall, but there is some evidence they might have reduced the number of serious crashes, according to The Times.

Regardless, the number of cameras are on the rise. In the past five years the number of red-light cameras in the country has gone from 1,000 to more than 5,500.

Not all are thrilled, which is why the cameras have been banned in nine states.

Our biggest beef, which is shared by many, is the intrusion on civil liberties. The presumption of guilt is simply troubling. The ends don't justify the means.

On this fight, Eyman has it right. Red-light cameras go too far.

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