Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 2, 2013

Editorial: Camera legislation raises questions

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — It’s a chicken-and-egg question that could end up costing Michigan motorists hundreds, could make a lot of money for an Arizona-based camera company and raises issues about the influence of lobbyists and politics on law-making at the state level.

And in the long run, the technology that is at the root of the whole thing is being widely questioned elsewhere and may not even pass judicial muster.

State Rep. Wayne Schmidt of Traverse City has co-introduced legislation that would give Michigan communities the authority to install traffic cameras — also known as “red-light cameras” — at intersections.

Schmidt, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he proposed the bill to give communities another option for improving public safety.

What’s odd, however, is that about a month before the legislation was introduced, a well-connected political lobbyist whose firm works for an Arizona-based camera technology company put in a call to Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley to talk about traffic cameras.

The lobbyist, Lansing-based Patrick Meyers, told Bensley the cameras might soon be allowed in Michigan under yet-to-be-introduced legislation. “He wanted to know where we are on this,” Bensley said.

Around the same time, Bensley said, undersheriff Nathan Alger had heard from Schmidt’s office about traffic cameras.

The idea that a lobbyist was calling about state legislation that had yet to be introduced “... made me ask, ‘Who’s driving this thing, anyways?’ Is there a need for this in Michigan? Where are the statistics?” Bensley said.

Those are good questions. And they raise the issue of how laws get made and who writes them — lawmakers or the people who stand to make millions off the process.

Schmidt, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he introduced the legislation to give communities another option for improving public safety.

But there are questions about the legality — and fairness — of the technology and whether Michigan needs it.

Retired Benzie County Sheriff Rory Heckman, in an op-ed piece published by the Record-Eagle June 1, said Michigan State Police traffic statistics show that traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities are all down substantially from 10 years ago.

Total crashes were down to 273,891 in 2012 from 395,515 in 2002, injuries were down from 112,484 to 70,519 over the same period and fatalities had dropped from 1,279 in 2002 to 936 in 2012. That’s still 2.5 deaths per day, on average, but a substantial improvement in 10 years.

Heckman also pointed out that the cameras have created a lot of controversy across the country. A Google search turns up dozens of stories about enforcement issues and challenges to use of the cameras.

In California, enforcement of tickets from red light cameras has been shut down in some areas or payment made voluntary; in other communities, almost half of all red light camera tickets are voided by police before they’re even sent out.

According to a Wikipedia report, as of the November 2011 elections, photo enforcement had been defeated in 22 of 23 elections where it was on the ballot.

As Heckman pointed out, a major problem is that while a ticket is issued to the registered owner of the vehicle involved, the owner may or may not be driving the car at the time of the violation.

There are also cost issues associated with the cameras. Heckman said vendors not only sell the cameras but administer programs to send out tickets and collect money. “These programs are not cheap,” he wrote.

These are all issues that must come before the Legislature and weighed before lawmakers vote. But it’s fair to wonder why Schmidt even proposed legislation that has caused so many problems elsewhere and may not be found legal here or didn’t explain those problems up front.

It’s also fair to ask where the proposed legislation actually came from — Schmidt’s office or American Traffic Solutions and lobbyist Patrick Meyers, who also has worked as director of the Michigan House Republican Campaign Committee.

Is this the way Michigan residents want business done in Lansing? Schmidt hasn’t taken a dime in campaign contributions from ATS but the company — or at least Patrick Meyers — knew details before even local law enforcement officials were asked for their opinion.

So which came first, the chicken or the egg?