Last week some Democratic office-holders including the maor of New Haven, re-launched the annual and so-far-unsuccessful legislative push to legalize red-light enforcement cameras in Connecticut.
That sparked now-familiar arguments pro (saving lives, preventing millions in unnecessary damage costs, and freeing police to fight serious crime) and con (worries about Big Brother, lack of due process, and the claim that cameras are less about safety than grabbing government revenue through fines).
But the upcoming political drama will have at least three elements not present last year.
One is the vocal support of Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who called the cameras a "highly appropriate" technology for fighting "bad behavior." He wasn't as out-front for the cameras in his inaugural year of 2011, saying only that he'd be inclined to sign such legislation if it passed, after having supporting the idea in his years as Stamford mayor.
Second is that 2012 is an election year for all 151 members of the state House of Representatives and 36 state senators — and politically sensitive questions have been known to trigger the self-preservation instinct of officials seeking re-election.
Third is a national political context of continuing anti-camera sentiment. About a half-dozen states, including nearby New Hampshire and Maine, have outlawed red light cameras. Also, voters around the country have almost invariably rejected camera-based traffic enforcement programs in about 20 referendums in recent years.
The most prominent example arose in Houston, where the cameras were turned off in late 2011 after 52 percent of voters opposed them in a November 2010 referendum, which was forced by a citizen activists' petition effort. Now there's a lingering court fight over millions of dollars claimed by the program vendor, Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions, or ATS, under the remaining years of its contract.
ATS is the same company that spent $84,000 for lobbying in Connecticut during 2011, according to a recent report filed with the Office of State Ethics. Another camera vendor, Australian-based Redflex, which operates in Arizona as well, spent $42,000, according to its lobbying report, filed Friday.
That puts the price tag of last year's unsuccessful camera enforcement lobbying campaign at $126,000.
On the other side, the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut paid more than $52,000 to a lobbying firm to be its advocate on various issues last year, including the successful effort to kill the red-light camera bill. Also, Michael Riley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut — representing truckers — has lobbied against the bill as part of his paid, in-house job and is already contacting lawmakers about it now.
More of the same is expected from both sides this year.
ATS's vice president for communications, Charles Territo, said in a phone interview that he's "not sure" how much his company will spend on lobbying in Connecticut in 2012.
But he did say that "we recognize the importance of having an opportunity to educate members of the legislature about the benefits of the cameras. There is a great deal of misinformation about red-light safety cameras, and it's our goal to make sure that the facts are shared with lawmakers and opinion-makers."
Territo said the cameras "are designed and deployed to change driver behavior … and they work."
The Texas Fight
Whether or not the Connecticut battle rises to the level of Houston's, it's worth looking south to see how polarizing an issue it can be.
Things were so wild down there that a story about it in the weekly alternative newspaper, Houston Press, was headlined "The Red-Light Camera Circus," with this subhead: "Step right up, folks: Passion, deceit, money, lots of money, double dealing and a mayor with more flip-flops in her than a Cirque du Soleil acrobat!"
Months after the November 2010 referendum, Houston Mayor Annise Parker turned the red-light cameras off in mid-2011. Then she turned them back on, in the face of legal pressure — but they went off for good as the November election approached, as council members voted, with only one dissenter, to shut them down. Parker was re-elected.
The leaders of the citizen effort against the cameras included two brothers, Paul Kubosh, a lawyer who defends accused traffic violators, and Michael Kubosh, a bail bondsman.
"We're tenacious," Michael Kubosh said on the phone last week. "We want people to get the message: Every time there's been a vote or referendum, the red light cameras fail. Citizens don't want them. The elected officials are lobbied by the red light camera companies. This all about revenue gathering, not saving lives. … They say that red-light runners cause the fatalities, but do you know the real cause? … Drunk drivers are the cause. They just kill you anywhere; you don't have to be at an intersection."
Territo, the ATS vice president, said that during the period that Houston's cameras were turned off by the mayor last year, there was a 147 percent increase in collisions at intersections. He said that for the Kuboshes, "it was a business decision. It was, is, and always will be. They make their living going to traffic court and getting people off of tickets. And red-light cameras made their job that much harder."
Opponents typically scoff at each other's statistics and poll results in the camera enforcement debate — and Michael Kubosh said a Rice University study contradicted the city's claims of decreased accidents at camera-enforced intersections. He said red-light cameras caused rear-end collisions when drivers see a camera-enforcement sign and jam on their breaks while the amber caution light is on. Territo denied that.
Kubosh characterized Territo, a former aide for a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, as one of those practiced talkers for an industry who will "tell you what you want to hear … like a guy on a date on a Friday night."
Territo also said that although "Houston was an unfortunate situation," it's not an indication of citizens' sentiment around the nation or a harbinger of things to come for his industry. He said outside of Houston his company had added dozens of city contracts and now is operating cameras in about 300 communities nationwide — including New York City, which has used the cameras since the 1990s.
He noted that voters in two cities in November had finally broken a string of losses for the industry by upholding camera enforcement programs.
Voters in East Cleveland, Ohio, agreed to keep existing traffic cameras in a Nov. 8 referendum, although cameras were rejected by voters in three other Ohio communities. It was reportedly the first time enforcement cameras had survived a vote anywhere in the nation.
Also in November, he said, voters in Longview, Wash., in a non-binding vote, approved of speed-enforcement cameras in school zones. However, voters also said they wanted to get rid of red-light cameras, a local newspaper report said.
Territo minimized the significance of such referendums.
"I think the relevance … is minimal at best. I think if you gave people the ability to vote on any law enforcement tactic" — even whether the police could ticket drivers for "stop sign violations" — "you'd probably see the same thing." He said there's a big public "policy question as to whether [referendum] questions of law enforcement should even be allowed."
No traffic camera bill has yet been drafted for the legislative session that will run from Feb. 8 to May 9. But supporters are talking about one similar to last year's, which got through by two legislative committees before stalling in the judiciary committee.
That bill would have enabled 13 Connecticut municipalities with populations of at least 60,000 to use the cameras to enforce red-light violations by issuing tickets calling for fines of at least $124 through the mail. Drivers could fight them in a local hearing process. They would not be able to renew vehicle registrations if they did not pay fines.
The tickets would not count as moving violations with "points" against a driver's license under that plan; it would be akin to a parking ticket in that regard.
Last year's bill did not attempt to institute a radar speed-camera enforcement program, and Malloy said last week at a press conference that he thinks this year's proposal also should stick to the red lights.
"I'm in favor of using technology, modern technologies, to fight modern problems," he said. "I'm not particularly tied to what the penalty is …. So, for instance, an electronically issued ticket might not carry points, or it might come at a lesser fine, to overcome some of the objections."
(Such objections, voiced prominently by the ACLU, include a driver's inability to face his accuser in court, because the accuser is a camera, not a human. Another objection is that the cameras only record the license plate and do not identify the driver, so the owner of a car or truck — or even a trailer — might be unjustly accused of running a red light if someone else is driving.)
"I'm just trying to practical about it," Malloy said. "I do not believe we should be fighting bad behavior with one arm tied behind our back. So availing ourselves of technologies that will help us ultimately correct those behaviors I think is highly appropriate. … I haven't understood, for the life of me, why we are not using technologies to positively impact changes in behavior."
Territo said on the phone last week that the cameras don't just take a photo of the license plate, but also make a 12-second video including the six seconds before and after the car runs a red light. Two technicians at ATS review the videos before the violations are sent back to the local police department for a final determination of whether a ticket should be issued, he said.
The cameras do not activate until a light turns red, he said, so no one who enters an intersection during an amber caution light gets a ticket. A 12-second video is better evidence of a violation than putting a policeman's word up against a motorist's, he said.
However, Riley, of the truckers' association, said only a police officer can correctly gauge all of the circumstances necessary for issuing a traffic ticket. He said the Internet is full of websites debunking camera enforcement proponents' claims — such as that of the National Motorists Association.
The NMA website has a list of objections to red-light cameras, beginning with "Despite the claims of companies that sell ticket cameras and provide related services, there is no independent verification that photo enforcement devices improve highway safety, reduce overall accidents, or improve traffic flow. Believing the claims of companies that sell photo enforcement equipment or municipalities that use this equipment is like believing any commercial produced by a company that is trying to sell you something."
Courant senior information specialist Cristina Bachetti contributed to this report.
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at email@example.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.