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Lawmaker Does U-Turn on Red Light Cameras

State Rep. Wayne Schmidt previously wanted to ban red light cameras, then wanted them, now not moving bill

The Michigan lawmaker sponsoring a bill authorizing red light cameras has made a U-turn on the issue. 

Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, last year co-sponsored a bill that would have banned red light cameras. This year, he sponsored a bill that would have brought red light cameras to traffic intersections across the state.

However, Rep. Schmidt said he has chosen not to move the red light authorization bill forward because of concerns he says he now has about traffic cameras and privacy issues. He made the revelation after Michigan Capitol Confidential inquired about his apparent flip-flop on the issue.

The Traverse City lawmaker said he had concerns last year about allowing red light cameras and that's why he signed on to ban them. That bill failed to make it out of committee, but this spring the he introduced House Bill 4763, which would do the opposite by giving permission to municipalities to use cameras on traffic lights. 

He said he did not "flip-flop" on the issue.

"I was in a car wreck a number of years ago and traffic intersection safety is a big deal to me," he said. "If we were going to have a discussion about this, it made sense to put a bill out there to look at all the options." 

He said hearings validated his original concerns about privacy and that's why he is dropping the most recent bill.

Red light cameras are an easy way for financially strapped municipalities to bring in revenue. 

However, red light cameras are expensive to operate, costing about $5,000 a month to lease, said Jim Walker, executive director of the National Motorists Association. To pay for that expense, municipalities often have to widen the window of offenses. Cities and townships can do that by keeping the timing of yellow lights short and ticketing motorist who make rolling right turns on red lights, he said. 

"Using safer, longer yellow intervals will almost always reduce violation rates far more than the cameras," he told lawmakers at a hearing on the matter. "Cameras take a year to drop violation rates by half. By adding seconds to the yellow, it will achieve a 60 to 90 percent drop in a few days."

In an op-ed in The Detroit News, Rep. Schmidt never mentioned concerns about privacy. He said his reasoning had all to do with safety.

"The frightening truth is red light runners are on the rise in Michigan," he wrote, pointing out that fatalities from red light runners have nearly tripled from 2011 to 2012. But a close look at the numbers shows the decrease had more to do with a quirk in statistics. Fatalities in 2011 dropped to 12 that year but the range has been from 22 to 32 over the past five years. In fact, red light running crashes with "hazardous action" dropped in 2012 from 5,078 to 5,031, while serious injuries were flat.

Manufacturers of red light cameras have a reputation for heavy lobbying in state capitols. It is not clear if sponsors of the bill have received any campaign support from red light camera manufacturers. Contributions do not have to be reported until the end of the year in an off-election year, according to the Michigan Secretary of State’s office.

Traverse City and Traverse County have been under financial pressure from unfunded pension liabilities, and revenue from red light cameras could provide some relief. However, Traverse City Manager Jered Ottenwess said he is not aware of any interest in installing the cameras.

All but one of the eight co-sponsors on the red light camera bill are Democrats from the Detroit area. In 2012, Rep. Schmidt sided mostly with Republicans from a broader geographic area to propose banning the cameras.

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See also:

Legislators Steering Michigan Toward Red Light Cameras

Legislator: Speed Traps 'A Tax on the Poor'