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Year in Review: State House was wrong to ignore 11 p.m. red light in order to pass rushed red-light camera expansion bill

By   /   December 26, 2012  /   No Comments

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

Editor’s Note: This story appears today as part of the PA Independent’s Year in Review series. This week, we will re-post several of our top stories from 2012. The article below was originally published on July 2, 2012.

Eric Boehm

HARRISBURG – Lawmakers in the state House ran a red light on Saturday night in order to pass legislation that could impose $100 fines for drivers who do the same in a number of suburban Philadelphia municipalities.

The Legislature voted to bypass a normally sacrosanct rule that forbids voting on legislation after 11 p.m. in order to get the bill – and about a dozen others – to Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk before lawmakers headed home for the summer.

The final vote on the red light camera bill did not take place until 1:10 a.m. Sunday.

The bill continues Philadelphia’s existing red-light camera program through 2017, and an amendment added late in the process will allow Pittsburgh and 14 municipalities in the Philadelphia suburbs to deploy the cameras, provided they have at least 20,000 residents and an accredited full-time police force. (Click here for list)

If you live in or commute through parts of Delaware, Montgomery or Buckscounties, you could face $100 fines thanks to the Legislature’s late-night efforts.  All revenue from fines would be directed to transportation-specific state coffers.

If you live in or commute through parts of Delaware, Montgomery or Bucks counties, you could face $100 fines thanks to the Legislature’s late-night efforts that allows for the expanded use of red light cameras.

Had you stayed up until that early hour to watch the floor debate, you would have seen some appropriate outcry about the way the bill was being passed.

State Rep. Will Tallman, R-Adams, implored other members to vote against what he called an invasion of privacy, and pointed to evidence that red light cameras actually do not reduce crashes (more on that later).

State Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, said 1 in the morning was not an appropriate time to pass such legislation, and made several unsuccessful attempts to temporarily shelve the bill.

They were valiant efforts, but unfortunately the final vote of 113-72 was more than enough to send the bill to Corbett, who was probably already asleep after signing the state budget a few minutes before midnight.

Lawmakers, you know, can ignore the rules that govern floor debate without the fear of a $100 fine.

Good luck trying to use those same parliamentary tactics to get out of paying the ticket that could result from their dubious maneuverings.

Is this as egregious as the now-infamous 2005 legislative pay raise vote – which also took place in the early morning hours following the approval of a state budget – after which the 11 p.m. rule was adopted by the state House?  No.

But once the 11 p.m. rule has been breached for relatively mundane legislation, what comes next?

Passage in the state House followed the bill’s rapid adoption in the state Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, introduced the amendment to expand the  program Thursday.  It was adopted without debate or discussion — not even a public hearing.

I asked Pileggi on Friday if he believed the proposal was vetted sufficiently, considering the expansion had been publicly available for about 24 hours and residents of those communities had no idea about it.

“It’s such a limited class (of municipalities) that I don’t think there is any question of appropriate notice to members,” he said.

Previously, the expansion of the red light camera program had focused on Pittsburgh and smaller cities like Scranton. The addition of 14 Philadelphia suburbs was entirely new.

Pileggi’s spokesman added that the bill gives municipalities the option of adding the red light camera but does not require that they actually do it.  This is true, but passing responsibility down the line for  implementing the policy does not excuse the General Assembly from its responsibility to act in an accountable and transparent manner when crafting that policy.

A few hours before the House vote Sunday morning, I asked House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, if he also believed expansion of the camera program was adequately vetted.

He said it was, and then proceeded to drive the House right through its own 11 p.m. red light in order to pass the bill while most Pennsylvanians slept.

Adding to the intrigue, a plurality of House Republicans voted against the bill. But Turzai and the rest of the leadership supported it, and the 62 Democrats who voted “yea” got it across the finish line.

I have respect for Pileggi and Turzai, even if – like most Pennsylvanians, I assume – I do not agree with every item on their agenda. Both men have difficult jobs and usually do a good job keeping the public informed about their intentions, which is all we really can ask of legislative leaders.

But the manner in which this bill moved through the General Assembly last week caused me to lose a degree of respect for both of them.

The bill is now sitting on Corbett’s desk, but he has not signed it as of Monday morning.

Before he does, I hope he considers the way it was passed.  I hope he also considers the question of whether red light cameras are even effective tools for public safety.

Advocates of red light cameras point to studies from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a national nonprofit funded by auto insurance companies that studies traffic safety issues, that indicate the use of cameras reduces the number of high speed collisions and fatalities at intersections.

Opponents point to a bevy of other studies that show the cameras increase the number of minor accidents – mostly of the rear-end variety – at intersections where they are deployed, while also increasing injuries.

These two conclusions are not mutually exclusive.  It’s possible – and quite likely, I’d say – that the use of cameras deters some people from running red lights and causing potentially deadly T-bone crashes.

At the same time, the threat of a fine probably makes more people slam on the brakes when the safer course of action would be to continue through the intersection in the seconds after the light turned red, resulting in more rear-end crashes.

Pennsylvania’s expansion of the program is happening at the same time that many other places – including, recently, Los Angeles, Houston and Colorado Springs – have unplugged their cameras.

Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach told the Wall Street Journal last year the cameras “have not demonstrated that they result in a material decrease in property damage and bodily injury.

But even if you believe that accidents are reduced and lives are saved by these cameras, that fact alone does not make it good policy.

Why? Because red light cameras lack discretion that even the least competent police officer will exercise.

A study of red light cameras in Denver last year found that more than 90 percent of the tickets handed out by the computerized system at one intersection were for violations that occurred in the right lane. It was the result of drivers either failing to come to a full stop before making a right turn on red or for stopping beyond the crosswalk to check for traffic before making a right turn.

If you’re the type of person who believes that a driver who makes a completely safe right turn on red after a rolling stop should be punished in the same manner as another driver who blows through a red light at 50 MPH, then you should support red light cameras.

If so, you also must believe that the type of driver who is going to recklessly risk life and limb by blasting through a red light will be deterred by the threat of a $100 fine.

Meanwhile, if we are to believe the data from Denver and elsewhere, most drivers hit with fines will be engaged in driving practices that are completely normal and safe.

If you think this is an absurdly ham-handed way to handle a public safety issue, then you should be outraged – particularly if you live in or frequently pass through any of the municipalities in the Philadelphia suburbs that soon could have the cameras up and running.

And if you believe the state Legislature should obey the laws they set for themselves – as residents of the state are expected to do – you should be equally upset about how this law was approved in the wee hours of Sunday morning.