Magnets for public cynicism

Few local topics have generated as many letters on this page the past couple of years than red-light cameras.

Some writers have defended them as a needed and reasonable safety tool. Most, though, have blasted them as a Big Brother way for city governments to boost revenue. They’re not likely to win any popularity contests.

Lynnwood, the only city in Snohomish County with red-light cameras, has had them for three years now. It also has speed cameras in two busy school-zone corridors. Limited accident data makes it hard to draw conclusions about whether they’ve improved safety, although police say complaints about red-light runners are way down.

The cameras have, however, been a revenue bonanza, whether or not that’s their primary purpose. They generated nearly $4.5 million in 2008-09 for Lynnwood. Through the first five months of this year, they’d already grossed more than $2 million.

A windfall like that, which city officials say they never expected, is bound to fuel public cynicism about the city’s motives. And that’s the fuel that runs Tim Eyman’s Mukilteo initiative factory. When Eyman’s hometown city council voted to install red-light and speed-zone cameras along the Mukilteo Speedway in May, he knew he had a winner. It didn’t take him long to collect 1,739 valid signatures for an initiative to force a public vote anytime the council wants to install such cameras.

The council is scheduled to discuss the initiative on Wednesday. It has only two realistic options, if it wants to avoid a virtual civic uprising: put the measure on the Nov. 2 ballot or adopt it as law.

We share the public’s apparent distaste for traffic cameras as revenue generators. It’s just too easy, especially if tickets are issued for nit-picky reasons, like not coming to a complete stop at a red light before taking a free right turn — something even police do routinely.

That said, we think they can be an effective safety tool — where accident data indicate there’s a serious problem. Safety must be the only reason for installing a camera that’s used to issue fines. The goal should be to break even on them financially. In fact, if the number of tickets issued at a particular intersection doesn’t diminish over time, that’s a pretty good indication the cameras aren’t making things safer, isn’t it?

Plenty of Mukilteo voters clearly want a say on this issue. We doubt voters in other cities feel much differently. Any city or county officials considering red-light cameras ought to proceed with caution.