State lawmakers vow to take on Ridgeland speed camera system

Questions about the legality of Ridgeland's use of video cameras to enforce speeding laws on Interstate 95 will be answered when the General Assembly reconvenes next year, Rep. Todd Rutherford and other state lawmakers say.

But the town's mayor says that before legislators propose a new law, they should see Ridgeland's operation.

Rutherford, D-Columbia, introduced an amendment to a transportation bill in July allowing speed or traffic cameras to be used only in emergencies and requiring tickets based "solely on photographic evidence" to be issued in person within an hour of the alleged violation.

Rutherford said he thought the law's passage would thwart the town's plans to use traffic cameras to catch and ticket speeders on the interstate.

"Not only did I think this was over, the entire Senate and the entire House did, as well," Rutherford said. "No one wants these traffic cameras."

Ridgeland became the first municipality in the state to enforce speeding laws using an automated traffic camera last month when it set up a camera and a recreational vehicle along I-95 where an officer monitors the camera. The town also began issuing citations last month using the system.

Town officials claim the law applies only to the use of unmanned cameras and not their system, in which a Ridgeland police officer operates radar and camera equipment inside the RV.

About eight miles of I-95 run through Ridgeland. The speed limit is 70 mph throughout that section.The town's traffic camera is triggered only if the vehicle is traveling faster than 81 mph, snapping photographs of the driver and the license plate, town officials say.

The image of the driver is compared by the police officer to the driver's license photo of the vehicle's registered owner. If they match, a speeding ticket is mailed to the owner's home. If the driver isn't the vehicle's registered owner or the photograph isn't clear, no ticket is issued.

The town began using the camera after striking a five-year deal in May with iTraffic, which relocated from Bluffton to Ridgeland as part of the contract.

iTraffic agreed to install the system and pay the salary of a Ridgeland police officer to operate the camera in exchange for half of the ticket revenue to help the company recoup startup costs.

Rutherford scoffed at the town's interpretation of the law and added that he and others plan to outlaw the cameras unequivocally when the legislature returns in January.

"I've never seen law enforcement actively trying to get around the law," Rutherford said. "The fact that they didn't ask the Attorney General's Office or anyone else whether this is even legal is truly scary. Someone should sue them."

Ridgeland Mayor Gary Hodges said he hopes Rutherford and other state lawmakers see the system for themselves before taking further action.

"Several members of the General Assembly have viewed our speed enforcement system and several others are scheduled to do so in the next few weeks," Hodges said in an e-mail. "We have extended invitations to any member of the General Assembly to view our system, and we hope that others, including Rep. Rutherford, will do so. It is important for our leaders to know the facts before they pass laws concerning public safety."

Local legislators had mixed reactions to the camera enforcement.

Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Fripp Island, said she would support legislation banning the cameras.

"The worst thing we can do is make South Carolina's roads some place that people don't want to drive," Erickson said. "It's sad that municipalities are having to go to this length for sources of revenue generation. That's really the root of the problem."

Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, got a firsthand look at the system last month and said the town is not skirting state law.

"I am absolutely against unmanned cameras, but I think it's fair to give someone a ticket who is going 11 miles over the speed limit if there is a live officer involved," Herbkersman said.

Sen. Clementa Pinckney, a Democrat whose district includes Ridgeland, has reservations about the cameras but declined to say whether he would support legislation to ban the program.

"I don't want our area to become known as a speed trap," Pinckney said. "There are also some privacy concerns over a private company, and not just the Police Department, having access to (DMV photographs and other driver information). I'm taking a wait-and-see approach. The mayor has invited me to come and see how the system works, so I'm reserving my final judgment until then."

Pinckney has yet to schedule a meeting with town officials to review the system, he said.