Monday, November 3, 2014

Will Cleveland voters shut down traffic cameras?

It’s the election’s sleeper issue: Cleveland’s traffic cameras. For nine years they’ve watched over major intersections and avenues, snapping photos of drivers’ license plates when they detect a speeder or a red-light-runner.

Tomorrow, Cleveland residents will decide whether to shut them off.

To supporters of Issue 35, which would effectively end the city’s traffic camera program, Election Day is the citizen’s chance to fight back against an unfair system and a government trying to raise cash. An anti-camera Facebook page has posted a picture of Mayor Frank Jackson, altered to show glowing dollar signs in his eyes. Jackson has warned that he’ll have to cut $6 million from the city budget if the cameras are shut down.

“If the mayor and council was concerned about safety rather than revenue, they probably would have looked at safety data sometime in last nine years while the cameras have been up,” argues petition drive organizer Jason Sonenshein. “They haven’t compiled that data.”

Issue 35’s backers spent four years gathering petition signatures for their proposed charter amendment. A yes vote would ban photo traffic enforcement in Cleveland unless a police officer is on the scene and personally issues the ticket. (That would reduce the cameras to expensive alternatives to radar guns.) A no vote on Issue 35 would preserve the camera program.

“I’m mostly concerned about the lack of due process with camera tickets,” says Sonenshein. “They ticket the owner, not necessarily the driver. If you weren’t driving, it’s up to you to prove your innocence, rather than up to the government to prove you’re guilty.”

Camera tickets can be appealed, and Cleveland Magazine recently found that about half of appeals result in a dismissal or reduced fine. But Sonenshein says only four percent of ticketed motorists appeal. "A lot of people can’t afford to take off work," he says. Hearing officers aren’t neutral, he complains, because they’re employed by the city, not a court.

The mayor and various city councilpeople, including council president Kevin Kelley, oppose Issue 35. Councilman Brian Cummins has posted arguments for keeping the cameras on his website. He and others argue that the cameras deter residents from speeding, that most of them are deployed in high-crash areas, and that they free police officers to combat violent crime. Bike Cleveland, the cycling advocacy group, also opposes Issue 35, arguing that the cameras help keep cyclists and pedestrians safe by slowing down car traffic.

I asked Sonenshein to answer the safety arguments, including the point on Cummins' website that pedestrians are likely to survive a collision with a car driving 20 mph, but likely to die if hit by a car going 40.

“There are lots of ways to improve the safety of the streets without raising the risk of punishing innocent people,” Sonenshein says, suggesting narrower traffic lanes and longer yellow lights. He also says the city hasn’t done a thorough study of the camera’s effects, and that a national study that claims traffic cameras reduce fatal crashes by 24 percent is flawed.

The camera debate cuts across the usual political divides. Sonenshein and several other petition organizers have a libertarian bent.  (Sonenshein's anti-camera PAC is called Liberate Ohio. He says it's spent about $1,300.) Councilmen Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed, usually allies, are on opposite sides of this issue. Johnson has defended the cameras, saying neighborhood groups often request them. Reed says he's become convinced the camera program is really about revenue, not safety. Most of council has long supported the cameras, but Joe Cimperman has voted against them, arguing they lead to rear-end collisions.

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