Say Cheese

The uncertain future of speed cameras in the miami valley

By Alyssa Reck

Photo: Traffic enforcement cameras automatically send tickets to the registered owner of a vehicle caught violating a traffic law

The alert scanner is set at the ready. Your foot hits the gas pedal and it’s smooth sailing. Your eyes dart to all the places you’d expect police officers to be sitting out, waiting to pull someone over for speeding. Today’s cruise is just a bit faster because of a lead foot. Buildings pass by. The speed limit is 25 miles per hour and all the lights are green. There are no police in sight. Your destination is to the left; you have arrived.

So how did a speeding ticket arrive in your mailbox, if you didn’t get pulled over? Furthermore, why did you get a ticket when you weren’t the one driving though town the other day? Better yet, you don’t even know if you were actually speeding.

These are just a few of the arguments put forth by opponents of speed and red light traffic cameras, which issue automatic tickets to ordinance offenders. In fact, the opposition to traffic cameras has been extraordinarily vocal, and various efforts have been made to shut down the practice since 2006. But the state of Ohio may be closer than ever to effectively shutting down traffic cameras, as recently, the Ohio Senate voted in favor of a bill that would require local governments to station a police officer anywhere a red light or speed camera is operating.

Opponents to this bill, which will now go to the Ohio House, claim the bill is as good as a ban on traffic cameras, as stationing an officer by an operating camera 24 hours a day would cost an exorbitant amount of funding – $12.2 million a year in Dayton alone, according to the Traffic Safety Coalition. Some officials argue sending an officer to man each camera would end up costing more money than the cameras would bring in.

Attorney Michael Allen, of Michael K. Allen & Associates is a strong supporter of dismantling the traffic cam trend. He has recently devoted his time and legal expertise to the issue, becoming the unsung hero for hundreds of people who have received traffic violation notices in their mailboxes.

“I oppose speed cameras,” Allen said. “We have a little too much Big Brother watching in this country.”

It all started with Scott Sloan on 700WLW radio. During a radio show, Sloan and Allen were talking about how Elmwood had installed traffic speed cameras at some of its intersections. Afterward, Allen received phone calls and emails from people who received tickets or “notices of liability.”

These notices appeared in the mailboxes of registered drivers about 30 days after the speed camera documented their alleged speeding violations. After that, it was up to the owner of the registered vehicle to pay the fine or dispute the violation. For Elmwood alone, over 300 hearings were dismissed after Allen filed a consolidated lawsuit to represent individuals who received notices.

Imagine a small business that just happens to be located between two intersections, each equipped with a speed camera. Then imagine that business slowly declining because every driver avoids the area. That is what was happening to Elmwood.

“People were driving around Elmwood because of it,” said Allen.

But it wasn’t just Elmwood that needed Allen’s help. There are other towns and cities that are unhappy with the use of speed cameras.

“This is a huge issue throughout,” Allen said. “I had people calling me from all over the country.”

A few statistics from theNewspaper.com, a website devoted to the “politics of driving,” show just how long the fight against cameras has been going on. According to the site:

In 2011, seven cities in Ohio, Washington and Texas chose to ban speeding cameras. One of those cities was Ashtabula, Ohio.

In 2010, Garfield Heights, Heath and Chillicothe, Ohio rejected red light cameras.

In 2008, Cincinnati residents said “no” to red light cameras.

In 2006, residents of Steubenville, Ohio voted down photo radar.

Recently, Cleveland passed Issue 35 – which removed traffic cameras operated by Xerox – with 78 percent approval. There was some opposition from supporters of keeping the cameras. These supporters made the argument that the streets were safer and kept people from pushing their lead-foot down on the pedal. They also argued there isn’t a large enough police force in Cleveland to devote to traffic duty. Nevertheless, the cameras were removed.

Now, with a state bill making its way to the Ohio House, which passed a similar measure in June of 2013, it may be the city – not the drivers – that ends up footing a big bill. According to WHIO, the loss of traffic enforcement camera fines would cost the city of Dayton alone between $1.4 and $1.5 million annually. That alleged revenue loss may be trouble for a city already in a position to pull from its cash reserves in 2015 for another $2.5 million.

The problem with traffic cameras

There is a huge and ongoing argument surrounding the use of speed cameras and the revenue they generate.

“Some say it stops accidents and slows drivers down,” Allen said. “Studies are conflicting though.”

Both Optotraffic and REDFLEX, companies that make and operate the cameras, work with the towns and some of the money from these notices goes back into local governments, which may or may not be a good thing.

“They are strapped for cash,” Allen said.

Another issue with speed cameras is the system inside the camera itself.

“You don’t know if they are properly calibrated,” said Allen. “There is not a human-being there.”

In terms of consistency and fairness, Optotraffic’s website explains an automated system helps to remove personal bias or human error.

Allen argues the cameras are “unreliable,” which, he says, contributes to the public backlash.

For example, a driver could be making a right turn on the curb lane at an intersection during a red light and be ticketed. Moreover, the tickets are issued to the owner of the car, which doesn’t account for the very real possibility that the driver’s spouse, parent, friend, repairperson, etc. could have been driving the car at the time of the incident.

So how is ticketing the owner of the vehicle instead of the actual individual driving the car not considered a system error?

The cameras document speed, license number and maybe even vehicle description. However, they don’t monitor the person actually driving the vehicle in that precise moment.

“That really P.O.’d people,” said Allen.

Imagine going to court against your spouse, significant other or your teenager to get the ticket removed from your name.

“It violates marital or spousal privilege,” Allen said.

In court, spousal privilege has two sides: communication and testimony. The point of this privilege is to encourage harmony between two spouses. It is designed to keep each partner in the marriage from condemning or being condemned by his or her spouse, according to the Legal Information Institute of Cornell University Law School.

Furthermore, citizens are supposed to have a meaningful hearing through due process. A citizen should receive a notice. He or she then has the right to file a grievance and to appeal the notice. Allen breaks it down even further. Citizens have a right of confrontation and are supposed to have time for the discovery process.

In this case, it is very difficult for a human being to confront the accuser – the speed camera. Allen states that at the hearings there is no discovery process. The companies “almost never” give lawyers the records. From there, if the speed camera company doesn’t file its own paperwork with the court, the case is won by the accused – the person who received a ticket. In a class action lawsuit, that could be anywhere from a few to, as in the case of Elmwood, hundreds of people.

Elmwood residents were receiving notices at $105 dollars apiece, which isn’t exactly pocket change.

“They only wanted to make money,” Allen said. “These cameras were put up in poorer neighborhoods with individuals and families on fixed incomes, retirees, single-parent families. Basically, the people that can least afford it.”

These are also the people who are least likely to be able to take their ticket to court or to know how to go about fighting it.

“Give them a fair way to fight it,” Allen said. “Otherwise, it’s just a money grab.”

One issue with an automated ticket system, according to Allen, was the individuals receiving the notices didn’t have a fighting chance and were presumed guilty. Usually, when an individual is issued a citation by a police officer, the officer testifies in person if the individual chooses to dispute it. Cameras don’t have a live person testifying. Allen refers to this as “kangaroo-court” – the court date is a formality; the outcome has already been decided; it’s just for show. And that’s a problem.

“It’s not right to balance the budget on the backs of motorists,” Allen said.

According to WHIO, the money Dayton receives through fines from the Redflex Traffic Systems units equates to about one percent of the city’s revenue.

Where they are and

how they work

There are other towns in the area also sporting fancy sensors.

New Miami’s four Optotraffic LLC speed cameras have caught and ticketed drivers 10,000 times since they were introduced in 2012. This has generated over $1 million in revenue.

Middletown’s REDFLEX speed cameras were placed at 13 intersections just to catch those running red lights, not to monitor speed. Trotwood has 12 REDFLEX speed or red light enforcement cameras. West Carrollton has cameras operated by REDFLEX too.

So what is the story behind Optotraffic LLC and REDFLEX?

According to its website, one of Optotraffic’s goals is to work with local governments to increase public safety in communities across the country. The company uses the same “above the road laser measurement technology” (LIDAR) used by NASA. Using LIDAR, Optotraffic’s speed cameras measure violations when vehicles pass between two laser beams that pulse 10,000 times per second.

REDFLEX develops photo enforcement solutions that include speed cameras, red light cameras and school bus stop arm systems using advanced sensors. Boasting 2,000 systems in over 220 communities in the U.S., Redflex has been around for more than 25 years. The company also operates internationally.

But, thanks in part to people like Allen, the lifespan of speed cameras may be short.

“I know they (speed cameras) are on their way out,” Allen said. “Give it a few years.”

For more information about Michael Allen, please call 513.321.5297 or visit mkallenlaw.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Alyssa Reck at Page AlyssaReck@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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