I-95 cameras snap speeders, spark controversy
Cameras have spotted thousands of speeding motorists and won accolades from highway safety advocates
By BRUCE SMITH
RIDGELAND, S.C. – As Interstate 95 sweeps past this small town along South Carolina's coastal plain, motorists encounter cameras that catch speeding cars, the only such devices on the open interstate for almost 2,000 miles from Canada to Miami.
The cameras have nabbed thousands of motorists, won accolades from highway safety advocates, attracted heated opposition from state lawmakers and sparked a federal court challenge.
Ridgeland Mayor Gary Hodges said the cameras in his town about 20 miles north of the Georgia line do what they are designed to do: slow people down, reduce accidents and, most importantly, save lives.
But lawmakers who want to unplug them argue the system is just a money-maker and amounts to unconstitutional selective law enforcement.
"We're absolutely shutting it down," said state Sen. Larry Grooms, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Earlier this month, Ridgeland Police Officer David Swinehamer sat in a van beneath an overpass as a radar gun in a thicket of electronic equipment outside clocked passing vehicles: 60, 72, 73, 67.
Then a Mercedes with South Carolina tags sped by going 83 — 13 mph over the speed limit. A camera fired and pictures of the tag and driver appeared on a monitor in the van. The unaware motorist continued north, but could expect a $133 ticket in the mail in a couple of weeks.
"I just don't think it's right," said James Gain of Kissimmee, Fla., one of the lawsuit plaintiffs who got a ticket last year while driving between his home and Greensboro, N.C. "If you get a ticket you should be stopped by an officer, know you have been stopped and have an opportunity to state your case."
Gain paid the fine, saying it was less expensive than driving six hours back to Ridgeland for court.
Motorists do get a warning. As they enter town, a blue and white sign says they are entering an area with "Photo-Radar Assisted Speed Enforcement."
Speed cameras are used in 14 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The only other place with a camera on I-95 is in a Maryland work zone.
The cameras have sparked controversy in other places around the nation as well.
Last year, Arizona ended a two-year program with cameras on Phoenix-area expressways and other roads, in part because of perceptions they were being used to raise revenue.
But Cedar Rapids, Iowa, began using cameras last summer on busy I-380. Police there said during the first month of operation, violations dropped 62 percent.
Hodges said since Ridgeland, working with iTraffic Safety, became the first community in South Carolina to deploy cameras in August, motorists are also driving slower along the 7 miles of I-95 passing through the town limits.
From January to July of 2010, there were 55 crashes and four fatalities. From August through the end of last month, there were 38 crashes and no deaths. And since the cameras started operating until last month, there has been almost a 50 percent drop in the number of motorists driving 81 or more.
"You can't argue with the results and the only reason you would be upset is because you are speeding," said Tom Crosby, a spokesman for AAA Carolinas. "All it's doing is enforcing the law and even then you have to be doing over 80 to get a ticket."
Police use driver's license photos or physical descriptions from licenses such as a driver's hair, eye color and weight to identify the motorist. No ticket is issued if there is any question about the driver's identity.
Grooms, the legislator, said since not all speeders are ticketed, it's selective enforcement. He added that while the system may issue a ticket, it doesn't get violators off the road.
"You are driving down the road at 100 mph or you are driving down the road drunk. The camera takes your picture and three weeks later you get a ticket in the mail. There is no element of public safety," he said.
Grooms said the cameras are only a money-maker for the town. Hodges discounts that, saying the town just wants to recover the cost of police and ambulance service for millions of motorists passing through. Two-thirds of ticket money goes to the state, he said.
The town has about $20,000 invested in the van. The contractor, iTraffic Safety, pays the other costs in return for a share of ticket revenue.
While state law prohibits issuing tickets solely on photographic evidence, the mayor said that doesn't apply in Ridgeland because an officer is also there to see the speeder from the van.
But the state Senate, in a 40-0 vote, recently gave approval to changing that and banning speeding tickets from photographs whether the camera is attended or not. The law would also require tickets to be handed directly to a motorist.
The federal lawsuit contends it's unconstitutional to send motorists tickets by mail and to addresses outside town limits.
Ridgeland is one of almost 90 jurisdictions nationwide using cameras to nab speeders and "to our knowledge, every single one of them mails the tickets," Hodges said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls speed cameras "a very effective countermeasure" to crashes but said they should supplement, not replace, officers patrolling. Ridgeland still uses officers on the interstate.
Hodges is not surprised by opposition to the cameras, particularly with South Carolina's history of motorists' rights. South Carolina was one of the last states to enact a .08 blood-alcohol level for drunken driving and took a long time to pass a primary seatbelt law.
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"We went through similar things when breathalyzers came out. We went through similar things when radar guns came out," Hodges said. "It's the same type of mentality."