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Despite Ban, Some Want Red Light Cameras in Columbia, S.C.

The red light cameras, which can photograph a driver and their license plate and then send tickets to that person’s registered address, are controversial and not allowed in South Carolina.

Red traffic lights and a traffic camera.
(TNS) — Jean Denman waited for her light to turn green. She paused for a beat when the light switched and then started to pull into the Columbia intersection.

“I saw this cement truck barreling toward me.”

Denman slammed on her brakes and fishtailed halfway into the road. The cement truck that had just run a red light barely missed her.

It was 2005, and Denman was new to Columbia. Some introduction.

She soon realized that it was not unusual for drivers to speed through red lights here. She’s now spent almost 20 years trying to get the city and state to adopt road safety cameras, but it’s been an uphill battle.

South Carolina doesn’t allow automated road safety cameras, often called red-light or speed cameras. And even before they were outright banned, a small South Carolina town was accused in 2010 of using similar cameras to ticket out-of-state drivers to boost its own revenue.

The cameras, which can photograph a driver and their license plate and then send tickets to that person’s registered address, are controversial. Arguments against them include concerns over privacy and worries that towns would take advantage of the tech to make money off of traffic tickets.

But Denman and others in Columbia and elsewhere in South Carolina are trying to get organized around an issue they say is a matter of life and death in a state with among the highest pedestrian deaths in the nation.

“All we’re trying to do is change behavior,” Denman told The State.

Safety problems

In November, a 31-year-old Columbia man died after running a red light near the intersection of Assembly and Laurel streets. Witnesses reported seeing him speed through the light before hitting another vehicle and sending it flying into a nearby building, according to Columbia police. Two passengers were also injured in that crash.

Advocates for road safety cameras say the chance of getting a ticket could successfully deter drivers from making similar risky choices in the future.

In 2021, more than 1,100 people in the U.S. were killed in crashes involving someone running a red light, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And South Carolina in 2022 ranked fourth in the nation for its rate of pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people, according to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association.

Road safety cameras have effectively discouraged running red lights and reduced fatalities in some communities, according to a study by the Federal Highway Association. That 2005 study found that the cameras helped reduce right-angle crashes by 25%, but the study also found rear-end crashes increased by 15%.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety notes that rear-end crashes tend to be less severe, “so the net effect is positive.”

The technology is supported by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Governor’s Highway Safety Association. Even the South Carolina Department of Public Safety noted a desire to research the technology in its 2020-2024 strategic plan.

Denman is part of a nonprofit founded in Spartanburg and now gaining traction in Columbia dedicated to lobbying the state to change the law to allow the use of the road safety cameras.

The nonprofit Citizens for Safe Streets was initially founded in Spartanburg in response to accidents on a local road, but it has since evolved into a grassroots organization working to build a coalition of community members and city leaders across South Carolina who support adopting road safety cameras.

Columbia Mayor Daniel Rickenmann is among the group’s supporters.

“For me, this isn’t about revenue,” Rickenmann said. “We can even make it (a) civil (penalty) instead of criminal, but the reality is that we need to do things to deter people.”

Rickenmann shared a story of nearly being struck by a driver who ran a red light near Kilbourne Road and Devine Street recently, and he said the problem is so pervasive in that area that nearby residents have asked if they can help pay for some form of intervention

When an accident does happen at a red light, it takes the Columbia Police Department an hour and a half on average to clear the intersection, Rickenmann added.

If the city can adopt technology to help police respond to accidents faster, and to free them up for other tasks, it should try to use it, the mayor said.

Legislative concerns

But nothing can change without support from the state Legislature, and the cameras’ advocates say they know that will be an uphill battle.

“It is a heavy lift to push this type of legislation through the General Assembly,” said former Columbia Councilman Howard Duvall, who is part of the group asking for the cameras to be allowed.

Part of the worry is that lawmakers will still have a bad taste for the cameras after the town of Ridgeland in 2010 was accused of taking advantage of speed cameras on Interstate 95 to ticket out-of-state drivers to boost its own revenue, Duvall agreed.

Ridgeland’s leadership denied any wrongdoing, according to news reports from the time, but lawmakers cracked down on the practice.

State Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, supported the 2010 bill that ultimately banned the cameras outside of emergency situations in response to the Ridgeland incident. The new rules were signed by then-Gov. Mark Sanford that same year.

The existing law requires that a person be handed a ticket in person, ensuring that no municipality could use the cameras to send citations through the mail.

Rutherford said he does not think any bill to re-allow the cameras would gain much support among lawmakers. He, at least, would adamantly oppose it.

“Allowing the government more intrusion into individual liberties is never, never going to lead us down a path that we need to be on,” Rutherford said. “Anytime the government wants more access to you, your personal information, your whereabouts, your location, your picture, who’s in the car with you, that is always a problem.”

Advocates for the cameras say many of the concerns over privacy and revenue generation can be addressed by writing safeguards into the would-be legislation. For example, the bill could specify that any money generated from tickets sent using the automated cameras would have to go toward pedestrian safety, not to the local police department or city hall.

But Rutherford said he doesn’t think any language could assuage his concerns.

“It’s beyond a slippery slope,” he said. “It ends up being a simple money-grab.”

Duvall and others said they anticipate this kind of resistance. That is why the group is hoping to build grassroots support before bringing the proposal back to the Legislature.

Citizens for Safer Streets has hired the marketing firm Aline to help get its message out, and it hopes to lobby city councils across the state for support before bringing a new proposal to the General Assembly at the beginning of the next legislative session in January.

Denman also has an idea to try a pilot program first, which she envisions starting with speed-detecting cameras in school zones during a limited period of the day. They could be used to gather data on if their presence does indeed reduce speeding and might help create buy-in before making broader changes.

© 2024 The State. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.