Eyman aims to stop automated traffic enforcement

Tim Eyman versus the red-light camera companies.

It’s hard not to break into a smile imagining all the reporting fun we’ll have this year if the Mukilteo initiative activist gets enough signatures to force a statewide vote on what he insists on calling “automatic ticketing cameras.”

Imagine all the opportunities for Eyman to parade about with his head encased in a cardboard box tricked out to look like a red-light camera. Imagine all the money out-of-state companies will spend on ads aimed at convincing voters that the scariest places in the free world are intersections not monitored by the benevolent robotic gaze of what they’ve dubbed “red-light safety cameras.”

A lot of people have strong feelings about Eyman and his initiatives. A lot of people are equally passionate about red-light cameras. It promises to be a heck of a clash. Think “King Kong vs. Godzilla.”

The face-off also may present the first real opportunity for people in Washington to debate the public policy questions raised by red-light cameras.

Pitched with promises of safer streets, the Legislature opened the door to the devices in 2005, adopting rules for cities statewide. The law didn’t include an off switch. So far the courts have ruled against local initiatives to stop existing camera programs.

Mukilteo voters rejected the cameras before they ever went into use. Monroe voters in November made it abundantly clear they want the devices gone, but because the city has a contract in place, that likely can’t happen until 2013. Lynnwood’s camera program, meanwhile, has brought the city millions of dollars in ticket revenue but provided scant evidence of improved traffic safety.

Through Lynnwood we’ve learned about the sometimes-shady practices of camera company executives, and we’ve seen the effect that camera revenue windfalls can have on a municipal budget. We’ve also seen how the intersection of private, out-of-state enterprise and local public safety programs can lead to behaviors that raise eyebrows, if not reprimands.

If 2011 is any indication, we’ll see people try to reduce the red-light camera question into a binary equation: Support them and you hate freedom; oppose them and you advocate anarchy. It’s more complex than that. There are real issues to grapple, including the implications of for-profit policing and the damage caused by drivers who apparently think laws against running red lights are advisory.

The technology that makes the cameras possible and the business contracts that put them up in intersections around the state arrived before people had enough information to make an educated decision. In fact, they weren’t even consulted.

A statewide vote would change that. Here’s hoping the guaranteed-to-get-ugly battle between media-savvy adversaries doesn’t distract us from the real debate about traffic safety and civil liberties.

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