For Red Light Cameras to Work, Arkansas Would Need New Laws

In order for some kind of automated video citation system to be deployed in Fort Smith, state officials would first have to pass legislation for automated citations to be made legal in the state.

by Max Bryan, Times Record / May 15, 2019
Inside the Arkansas Capitol David Kidd

(TNS) — City officials have proposed using fines and technology to deter motorists from running red lights in Fort Smith, Ark.

Vice Mayor and At-large City Director Kevin Settle at a study session Tuesday said he would like the city to raise the fine for red light violations and install automated video citation systems at intersections in Fort Smith. Officials would have to pass a city ordinance to raise fines for this kind of violation. State officials would have to pass legislation for automated citations to be legal in Arkansas.

According to department records, Fort Smith police since Jan. 1, 2014, have worked 705 wrecks involving red light violations — a rate of roughly 11 per month. One resulted in a fatality and 26 resulted in serious injuries.

"It's something the board needs to address to make our city safer," Settle said.

Interim Police Chief Danny Baker said drivers in Arkansas may run red lights at a higher rates than in the past because they try to beat yellow lights before they turn red. He said this began after the state Legislature passed a law in 2009 that protected drivers who enter an intersection at a yellow light from a citation if it turns red while they are in the intersection.

Settle said plenty of motorists in Fort Smith run red lights but don't get a citation because an officer isn't present or a wreck doesn't happen. This happens, he said, despite Baker saying police can better enforce red light violations more easily since they began using body-worn cameras, which allow them to review footage, in March.

"Whether it's something we can enforce or not, it's something in everybody's face every day of the week," Baker said.

Settle said he hopes city directors will meet with state legislators over the summer to discuss a plan to create legislation that would permit this kind of enforcement. Baker said automated traffic enforcement is permitted under state law in school zones and at railroad crossings but not in ordinary traffic intersections.

Even if legislation that allows automated enforcement passes, City Administrator Carl Geffken said cameras suited for this kind of enforcement typically cost about $100,000 apiece. Settle said these kinds of cameras could be less expensive in 2021, when the Legislature is back in session.

"Ultimately, it's the cost of public safety. You can't put a price on that," Settle said. "If you can save a person's life because you put a red light camera there and people stop during red lights, that cost is invaluable. It could come out of the street department budget, come out of the engineering department budget."

Municipalities under Arkansas law can enact a maximum fine of up to $100 for traffic violations if they do not rise to a misdemeanor level. City Attorney John Settle said city officials could pass an ordinance tied to traffic misdemeanors that carries a fine on top of the state fine.

Kevin Settle said he would like the fine for red light violations to rise to $250-$500. He said he believes this dollar value would deter people from committing the violations.

"The hard dollars to run a red light is not a very good fine," he said of the current fine.

Baker said his officers will continue to enforce red light violations, but added that this issue reaches beyond the Police Department.

"There are a lot of steps that can be followed to try to reduce this in Fort Smith. ... We'll continue to do that by working with the other city departments, the state department," he said.

©2019 Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.