Speed cameras draw protest, praise

Bruce Smith/AP Photo
Speed cameras watch traffic along Interstate 95 in the small town of Ridgeland, S.C. The cameras have drawn a federal suit from ticketed drivers and opposition from state lawmakers.

RIDGELAND, S.C.--- As Interstate 95 sweeps past a small town along South Carolina's coastal plain, motorists encounter cameras that catch speeding cars, the only such devices on the open interstate for almost 2,000 miles from Canada to Miami.

The cameras have nabbed thousands of motorists, won accolades from highway safety advocates, attracted heated opposition from state lawmakers and sparked a federal court challenge.

Ridgeland Mayor Gary Hodges said the cameras in his town about 20 miles north of the Georgia line do what they are designed to do: slow people down, reduce accidents and, most importantly, save lives.

Lawmakers who want to unplug them argue that the system is just a money-maker and amounts to unconstitutional selective law enforcement.

"We're absolutely shutting it down," said state Sen. Larry Grooms, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Earlier this month, Ridgeland Police Officer David Swinehamer sat in a van beneath an overpass as a radar gun in a thicket of electronic equipment outside clocked passing vehicles: 60, 72, 73, 67.

Then a Mercedes with South Carolina tags sped by going 83 -- 13 mph over the speed limit. A camera fired, and pictures of the tag and driver appeared on a monitor in the van. The unaware motorist continued north but should expect a $133 ticket in the mail in a couple of weeks.

"I just don't think it's right," said James Gain of Kissimmee, Fla., one of the lawsuit plaintiffs who got a ticket last year while driving between his home and Greensboro, N.C. "If you get a ticket, you should be stopped by an officer, know you have been stopped and have an opportunity to state your case."

Gain paid the fine, saying it was less expensive than driving six hours to Ridgeland for court.

Motorists do get a warning. As they enter town, a blue and white sign says they are entering an area with "Photo-Radar Assisted Speed Enforcement."

Hodges said that since Ridgeland, working with iTraffic Safety, became the first community in South Carolina to deploy cameras in August, motorists are driving slower along the seven miles of I-95 passing through the town.

From January to July of 2010, there were 55 crashes and four fatalities. From August through the end of last month, there were 38 crashes and no deaths. Through last month, there has been almost a 50 percent drop in motorists driving 81 mph or more since the cameras were switched on.

"You can't argue with the results, and the only reason you would be upset is because you are speeding," said Tom Crosby, a spokesman for AAA Carolinas. "All it's doing is enforcing the law, and even then you have to be doing over 80 to get a ticket."

POLICE USE DRIVER'S LICENSE photos or physical descriptions from licenses such as a driver's hair, eye color and weight to identify the motorist. No ticket is issued if there is any question about the driver's identity.

Grooms said that because not all speeders are ticketed, it's selective enforcement. He also noted that the system doesn't get violators off the road.

"You are driving down the road at 100 mph or you are driving down the road drunk. The camera takes your picture and three weeks later you get a ticket in the mail. There is no element of public safety," he said.

Grooms said the cameras are only a money-maker for the town. Hodges says the town just wants to recover the cost of police and ambulance service for millions of motorists passing through. Two-thirds of ticket money goes to the state, he said.

The town has about $20,000 invested in the van. The contractor, iTraffic Safety, pays other costs in return for a share of ticket revenue.

Though state law prohibits issuing tickets solely on photographic evidence, the mayor said that doesn't apply in Ridgeland because an officer is there to see the speeder from the van.

However, the state Senate, in a 40-0 vote, recently gave approval to changing that and banning speeding tickets from photographs whether the camera is attended or not. The law would also require tickets to be handed directly to a motorist.

The federal lawsuit contends it's unconstitutional to send motorists tickets by mail and to addresses outside town limits.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls speed cameras "a very effective countermeasure" to crashes but said they should supplement, not replace, officers patrolling. Ridgeland still uses officers on the interstate.