Beaufort News

Beaufort County lawmakers support Ridgeland traffic cameras

Ridgeland's camera traffic enforcement on Interstate 95 is getting support from three Beaufort County legislators who want to make the controversial practice legal.

A bill to be introduced by S.C. Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, would allow Ridgeland to continue using cameras to catch speeders on I-95.

The practice is opposed by other legislators who want Ridgeland to reimburse drivers who have received tickets.

The new ticketing system also is being challenged by a class-action suit recently filed in federal court.

Erickson was unavailable to comment Tuesday but referred questions to Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton.

Herbkersman and Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head Island, both said they have not seen the bill but intend to co-sponsor it after they review it.

Herbkersman said he opposed the practice before he and other lawmakers visited the town to see the system in action. With the system, a police officer operates radar and camera equipment inside an RV parked near the highway. Ridgeland splits ticket revenue with iTraffic, a private company that paid to install and operate the system, a cost that includes the salaries of the officer who operates the camera and an administrator.

"I was totally against it until I went and looked at it," Herbkersman said.

Herbkersman now thinks it is legal, catches lawbreakers and protects officers. It should help Ridgeland offset expenses for emergency services and could be used to track vehicles during events such as Amber Alerts for abducted children.

Patrick, a former New York state trooper, said he supports Ridgeland's practice in part because he has attended funerals for colleagues struck down on the roadside while investigating an accident or issuing a summons.

He said he's not sure how effective Ridgeland's program is at deterring speeding, because drivers don't know they've been cited until they get a ticket in the mail.

Although some detractors question whether the town violates due process in the way it cites drivers, Patrick compared the practice to the way in which the operators of Hilton Head's Cross Island Parkway mail bills to drivers who travel through the toll booths without paying.

"Couldn't you sort of apply the same logic?" Patrick asked.

Erickson's plan surfaced days after state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau and chairman of the Senate's Transportation Committee, introduced a bill to prohibit Ridgeland's practice and reimburse drivers who got tickets, as well as require the town to pay a $500 fine to the state for each ticket issued by the system.

Grooms vowed to stop Erickson's bill and said he remains "adamantly opposed to automatic and private law enforcement."

"As long as I have breath, there's zero chance that will ever become law," Grooms said.

Grooms said Erickson's bill would have to come through his committee, for which he sets the agenda.

"There's no rule that requires all bills get a hearing," Grooms said.

He also pledged to use temporary budget provisions to seek penalties that would further discourage Ridgeland's practice.

Grooms said government shouldn't give private entities motive to profit from enforcing traffic laws, which he said are best enforced by officers with flashing lights that slow down other drivers.

"That's a slippery slope I don't think the people of this county and this state want to go down," he said.

In June, Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, introduced a measure effectively banning Ridgeland's cameras. It allowed cameras to be used only in emergencies and required tickets based "solely on photographic evidence" to be issued in person within an hour of the alleged violation.

The bill passed unanimously in the House and Senate, and Rutherford and Grooms both said they thought the issue was closed.

Town officials, however, deployed the cameras in August, arguing the law applies only to the use of unmanned cameras.

Attorney Pete Strom of Columbia filed a class-action suit Dec. 20 against the town and its police department, alleging aspects of the system are unconstitutional.

Since August, 3,000 to 4,000 tickets were issued using the cameras, which generated $38,582 in revenue for the town, Ridgeland officials said in mid-December.

Town officials have said the cameras have contributed to a 57 percent reduction in drivers traveling faster than 81 mph on the town's section of the interstate.