The Intersection’s Gaze: Debate in New Haven Over Red Light Cameras

The Intersection’s Gaze: Debate in New Haven Over Red Light Cameras

Lawmakers in Connecticut are considering a bill that would allow municipalities of over 48,000 people, including the city of New Haven, to install red light cameras at intersections. Activists from local civil liberties groups oppose the measure, but proponents say it’s all about safety.

The New Haven law would impose a $50 fine on red light-runners. Gary Brown on Flickr

This piece originally appeared on the New Haven Independent.

If the city of New Haven, Conn. starts using cameras to catch red light-runners, argued Andrew Schneider, New Haveners will “give up civil liberties” without getting any safer.

Schneider (at megaphone in photo below), executive director of Connecticut’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, made that argument Monday evening on the sidewalk outside City Hall. Members of the ACLU joined protesters from local civil rights group as well as Occupy New Haven to denounce a bill at the state Capitol that would allow New Haven to install cameras to ticket drivers who run red lights.

The bill, which would apply to municipalities of over 48,000 people, passed the state legislature’s Transportation Committee on March 14. It awaits final votes in the state House and Senate. Mayor John DeStefano and local activists, who have fought for years for such a measure, now have the support of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Some of New Haven’s legislators are on board, too, including Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney.

Under the bill, drivers caught blowing traffic lights would face a $50 fine and a $15 administrative fee. Drivers would get a ticket in the mail; they wouldn’t have to appear in court or face points on their licenses. The ACLU has tried, successfully, to block similar legislation for years.

Supporters argue the bill would help avert tragedies that hit New Haven in recent years, sparking a citywide traffic-calming movement.

Taking the megaphone Monday, Schneider argued the opposite: That red light cameras actually make the streets more dangerous. He cited a 2005 Washington Post study that found that injury and fatal crashes rose 81 percent in five years at intersections in Washington, D.C. where the cameras were installed.

Schneider raised two main civil liberties concerns. The information from the cameras can be used to track drivers’ whereabouts, and the bill tramples on due process rights, he argued: It would deny the driver the right to confront his accuser. The timeframe for issuing a ticket—up to 60 days after the alleged offense—is so long that drivers wouldn’t be able to remember the incident well enough to come to their own defense.

“Why are we giving up our civil liberties for no safety at all?” Schneider asked.

About 20 people joined him on the blustery sidewalk.

“Don’t make New Haven a red-light district,” urged one sign. “No taxation through citation,” argued another.

New Haven civil rights activist Barbara Fair elaborated on that last point.

“People here are unemployed and struggling,” she said. She called the red-light camera bill just another way for government to continue to “rob this community” by citing a large number of people who drive cars.

“I think this is nothing but a revenue generator,” Fair argued. She was making an argument that many others have made this year, as one vendor that stands to profit from the legislation heavily lobbies the Capitol.

“It’s only about making money,” agreed local filmmaker Jimi Patterson (at left in picture, handing the megaphone to Fair).

Credit: Melissa Bailey

If the city starts nabbing red-light runners, it will use the money from the red light cameras to roll out new grass on the Green on the grave of Occupy New Haven, he predicted. He said he believes in “laissez-faire capitalism” that protects individual rights.

Down the street, Downtown Alderman Doug Hausladen, who has lobbied legislators for the bill this year, defended the effort.

Hausladen pointed to an insurance industry-backed 2011 study showing a dramatic reduction of “T-Bone” (front-to-side) car crashes. While the number of rear-end collisions crept up due to people suddenly stopping at red lights, the drop in deadlier T-Bones prevented far more damage and loss of life.

In response to Fair’s argument, Hausladen said the bill does not impose any tax or rob citizens.

“It’s not a tax; it’s a penalty. You only have to pay that penalty if you break the law,” he said.

As for the privacy concerns, Hausladen said he is confident that “safeguards” could be written into the law protect against privacy abuses, such as tracking New Haveners’ cars around town.

The bill now sits before the state House. Lawmakers have said it will likely be amended before a final vote, which must take place before the legislative session ends on May 9.

Tags: governancecommutingnew haven

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