(Editor's note: Information was added to this story May 3, 2010.)
Ridgeland Mayor Gary Hodges knows drivers might resent the town's latest attempt to reduce speeding on the eight miles of Interstate 95 within the town's limits, more so because it involves cameras.
But he says he doesn't care.
"If you're going 85 to 90 mph, then I'm sorry," Hodges said. "I've got no sympathy for someone who gets a ticket for going that far over the speed limit. It makes the highway too dangerous for locals and for tourists."
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Last week, town officials finalized a five-year deal with iTraffic of Bluffton to install automated speed cameras along Ridgeland's stretch of the highway. The town could opt out of the contract within 90 days without penalty, Hodges said.
ITraffic's radar would record motorists' speed, and a camera would snap a photograph of the license plate and the face of a driver caught "speeding excessively." The tickets would be mailed to the vehicle's registered owner. The driver could view the footage of his violation online.
Though Hodges declined to say what speed would trigger the cameras and added anything more than 10 mph over the 70 mph posted limit likely would be considered excessive speeding.
As part of the deal, iTraffic will set up its headquarters in Ridgeland and pay up front for the overhead costs of installing and operating the system, including hiring two police officers and one administrator, according to town officials.
In return, Ridgeland will split the ticket revenue with the company to help it recoup startup costs, said Bill Danzell, iTraffic's chairman. Danzell declined to say how much it would cost to get the system running.
Danzell said the company hopes to have the cameras working later this summer.
He deferred questions about how many cameras would be installed, where they would be placed and if citations would result in points against a driver's license to Ridgeland Police Chief Richard Woods. Woods could not be reached for comment.
'NO LEGAL ISSUES'
Ridgeland will be the first municipality in South Carolina to use automated traffic enforcement, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. About 13 states use speed cameras, the institute says.
Other state law enforcement agencies have considered using the technology, as evidenced by three opinions from the S.C. Attorney General's Office to police departments that inquired about the legality of the cameras.
Assistant deputy attorney general Robert Cook wrote in a 1996 opinion to former Greenville Police Chief David Bridges that "no statute absolutely prohibits a municipality's use of photo radar." The opinion also recommended that the General Assembly decide whether to ban or authorize photo radar systems. No such legislative action has been taken.
Danzell declares his company's cameras are legal.
"There are no legal issues here," Danzell said. "There is no ambiguity. There is not a state law out there that addresses the use of this technology."
Hodges said the town did its research and agrees.
"We will deal with any sort of legal challenge if it happens, but we've researched it and there's no law against it," Hodges said. "People had this same reaction to breathalyzers and radar guns when they were first introduced, and people will react to this, but it's really just another tool to help law enforcement. It's a new way of doing an old thing."
NOT A 'MONEYMAKER'
Hodges said some will view the cameras as a quick way for the town to fill its coffers.
He denies that's the case.
"Traffic tickets aren't really a moneymaker," Hodges said.
Of the $133 citation a driver can be issued for traveling 10 to 15 mph over the speed limit, Ridgeland will remit about $84 to the state and keep the remaining $49, Hodges said. The $49 will be divided evenly between the town and iTraffic, he said.
While acknowledging more citations probably would be written, Danzell said the cameras would likely affect only a small percentage of drivers on I-95.
The company conducted a six-hour traffic study earlier this year on the highway and found that only about 120 of the 6,000 cars that passed were going more than 10 mph over the limit. Only those drivers speeding excessively would be photographed and cited, Danzell said.
SPEEDERS 'ARE THE PROBLEM'
Automated traffic systems have their share of detractors, including the American Civil Liberties Union and AAA, which has warned drivers about cameras near busy highways in Arizona and Maryland.
Tom Crosby, vice president of communications for AAA Carolinas, said the organization does not uniformly object to use of the cameras but is strongly opposed to "predatory traffic enforcement."
"If these cameras are just in use for this one stretch of I-95, it could create a bottleneck that could create a dangerous situation," Crosby said. "It feels like it's targeting out-of-state drivers, since that's such a heavily traveled north-south corridor."
Hodges said signs will be erected near the town's limits at mile markers 17 and 25, warning drivers the speed limit is camera-enforced.
Returning home to Savannah from a business trip in Virginia, Gene Sterlip said the idea of the cameras made him uneasy.
"It feels a little invasive," said Sterlip, as he refueled his SUV at a gas station in Ridgeland off I-95. "I can handle getting pulled over by an officer but getting a ticket in the mail two weeks later feels a little too 'Big Brother.' "
Hodges said if drivers aren't speeding, they won't have to worry about getting a ticket in the mail from Ridgeland.
"I know it's a federal highway, but eight miles of it is in the town of Ridgeland," he said. "I didn't put it there, but I'm going to enforce it. If you're going 87 in a 70, you are the problem. The camera's not the problem, the radar's not the problem, you're the problem."