Politics & Government

Legislature considers red-light camera restrictions just as Bellingham plans to install them

Photo enforcement has become a controversial way to catch speeders and red-light runners, and some state lawmakers want to put new restrictions on automatic cameras in the session starting Monday, Jan. 10.

There's a feeling in city halls and in Olympia that if lawmakers don't, voters will.

"If the Legislature does not act, there will be an initiative on the ballot," predicted Rep. Chris Hurst, a Democrat who represents parts of Pierce and King counties.

In Bellingham, city officials are moving forward with a program to install red-light cameras at four intersections and speed cameras in two school zones. The Bellingham City Council voted 6-1 in November to approve a law allowing the cameras for at least a year. Council member Seth Fleetwood voted against it.

Those cameras have not been installed.

In the Legislature, two competing efforts are emerging. A bill being drafted with the support of the Tacoma City Council would further standardize the way cities adopt red-light and speed cameras, the signs they put up and the behavior they ticket, including right turns on red. Supporters say it will make sure other cities are as careful as Tacoma has been in using cameras.

A tougher stance on the cameras comes from Hurst, who is planning to introduce legislation that would give voters a veto every time a city wants to add cameras.

Requiring voter approval would make it harder for more cities to join the list of those using photo enforcement, which already includes Lacey, Auburn, Lakewood, Puyallup, Federal Way, Fife and Tacoma. Cities have embraced photo-enforcement as a way to enhance safety, but critics say it's more about enhancing municipal budgets.

Hurst's top priority, though, is to set standards that make red-light cameras more forgiving to drivers who pass under lights as they turn from yellow to red.

The retired police detective said he's worried cities will use cameras as a piggy bank instead of a way to improve traffic safety.

The ideas suggested by Tacoma and being drafted as bills by lawmakers from the city are more modest. But freshman Democratic Rep. Connie Ladenburg, a former Tacoma City Council member, said they would address some of drivers' biggest concerns about the cameras.

One worry is that cameras ensnare drivers who are turning right on red, and who inch forward into the turn instead of making the required complete stop. Ladenburg is still working on exactly what standards to propose, but the idea is to prevent ticketing of drivers as long as they slow down and don't endanger pedestrians.

The Tacoma-backed bill also would expand the locations where speed cameras could be placed to include streets along transit stations and heavily-used parks. It would restrict school-zone cameras to the beginning and end of the school day.

Both attempts at legislation have picked up on complaints about yellow light times at cameras, calling for a standard time for yellow lights. Ladenburg would require cities to use a state standard.

Hurst has drawn up two bills that both would offer an extra second to drive through a light as it changes from yellow to red without being ticketed.

They would do it in slightly different ways. One would require a one-second grace period after the light turns red. The other would require lights to stay yellow for one second longer than a state standard. Lawmakers can pick which approach they like best, Hurst said.

By determining a new standard, "the Legislature's now going to be traffic engineers, which they shouldn't be doing," said Randy Lewis, Tacoma's lobbyist.

Hurst says cities in other states have shortened the duration of yellow lights to drive up revenue from the tickets, and accuses Seattle of the same practice.

Seattle officials told seattlepi.com in 2008 the city lowered some downtown yellow-light times as part of a re-timing that increased red-light times, not because of cameras.