In a 36-14 vote, the Senate gave preliminary approval today to a bill that would kill red-light cameras in the last remaining North Carolina cities that use them: Wilmington, Knightdale, Cary and Raleigh. [4/8/11 update: see today's story with reader comments.]
The bill sponsor, Republican Sen. Don East of Pilot Mountain, is a former Winston-Salem police officer who argues that drivers should be able to cross-examine the officer to gives them a traffic ticket.
“You ought to be able to say, ‘Officer, are you right sure that light was red?’” East said during floor debate. His Senate Bill 187 will move to the House if it passes a final Senate vote next week.
Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, argued that local officials should be allowed to decide whether to use the cameras. He cited crash statistics that credit red-light cameras with reducing right-angle collisions, caused when a driver runs a red light, at two busy corners in downtown Raleigh.
There were 48 of the crashes recorded at Dawson and South streets during four years before the cameras were installed, and 16 during the same period afterward. At Dawson and Morgan streets, Stein said, the crash counts fell from 42 during the four years before installation to one crash in the four years afterward.
Raleigh officials said in 2008 that cameras installed at 11 interesections in 2003 had cut right-angle crashes at those intersections by 83 percent.
Several North Carolina cities were forced to unplug their red-light cameras in the 1990s after the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that most of the proceeds from their $50 tickets must be turned over to local schools, instead of being used to pay technology vendors that operate the systems.
Raleigh, Cary, Knightdale and Wilmington were excluded from that court case only because their cameras had been authorized under separate statutes with slightly different language. Legislative lawyers say their red-light camera programs might not survive a similar legal challenge.
Several studies have said that red-light cameras reduce T-bone crashes -- that's what happens when one car is struck at a 90-degree angle by another -- which can cause serious injury.
But they sometimes increase rear-end collisions, caused when the driver in front hits the brakes to avoid running the light. Rear-enders generally cause fewer injuries.
Some experts have questioned these findings. A report from the University of South Florida College of Public Health looks at several old studies, including one headed by a UNC-Chapel Hill safety researcher, and concludes that they actually show red-light cameras cause more crashes and injuries.