Beaufort News

Bill in support of traffic cameras riles Ridgeland's lawmaker

A push by three Beaufort County lawmakers to make Ridgeland's use of speed cameras along Interstate 95 unambiguously legal has struck a nerve with the town's state representative.

Rep. Curtis Brantley, D-Ridgeland, who opposes the cameras, said Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, crossed the line Tuesday when she introduced a bill allowing the Jasper County town to continue using cameras to ticket speeders.

"It's irresponsible, inappropriate and disrespectful," Brantley said. "They never consulted me. They're not even representatives of this county."

Erickson disagrees.

"I think this issue has the potential to impact the entire state," said Erickson, who shares a desk with Brantley in the House chambers. "I don't think this is a county issue."

Ridgeland's only other representative in Columbia, Democratic Sen. Clementa Pinckney, agreed with Erickson that this is a state issue but said she should not expect his support.

"We're all state legislators," Pinckney said. "It's not a local bill."

Instead, Pinckney said he will support a measure introduced earlier this month by Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, that seeks to ban Ridgeland's camera enforcement and reimburse ticketed drivers. That bill also would require the town to pay a $500 fine to the state for each ticket it has issued by the system.

"I have some concerns about the use of cameras on the interstate," Pinckney said. "I have had constituents and a number of people from outside the district call and complain about the system, and about 80 percent of the comments have been negative."

Grooms' bill was approved Wednesday by a subcommittee of the Senate Transportation Committee.

The town started using the cameras in August on a seven-mile stretch of Interstate 95 within town limits, despite a state law passed in June intended to make the system illegal.

Erickson's bill, H 3443, would repeal that law that allows traffic cameras to be used only in emergencies and requires tickets "based solely on photographic evidence" to be issued in person within an hour of the alleged violation.

Ridgeland officials claim the law applies only to the use of unmanned cameras -- their cameras are attended remotely by a police officer in a nearby RV.

The bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton; Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head Island; Joseph Daning, R-Goose Creek; and Deborah Long, R-Indian Land, according to legislative records.

Herbkersman said Erickson and the other co-sponsors did nothing improper by introducing the bill.

"Interstate 95 is a state issue," Herbkersman said.

AN 'IMPETUS FOR DISCOVERY'

Patrick, Erickson and Herbkersman said they introduced the bill in the hopes of igniting a debate about the future of automated traffic enforcement in South Carolina. Ridgeland is the only municipality in the state using speed cameras.

"We need to have a full vetting of this issue in a comprehensive manner with everyone at the table," Erickson said. "The bill we passed last year was well-intended and was designed to slow down this effort, but it didn't fully answer the question of should we or should we not be using this technology. My bill is more of an impetus for discovery."

All three traveled to Ridgeland last year to view the system and meet with town officials and representatives from iTraffic, the company that helped the town launch the system.

The Beaufort County lawmakers said they were impressed.

"There is a lot of misinformation out there about the system," Patrick said. "The officer operating the system is using the same techniques he would be using if he was sitting in a patrol car. This isn't an unmanned camera. The system still allows the officer the ability to use discretion."

Since being deployed in August, the system has helped Ridgeland police write more than 8,000 speeding tickets and has netted the town about $100,000 in revenue, Ridgeland Mayor Gary Hodges told a state Senate subcommittee this week.

More important, he says, the cameras have helped reduce speeding and traffic fatalities on its stretch of the interstate.

Pinckney isn't sold on the system's public-safety benefits.

"I've had people in the law enforcement community tell me that, as well-intended as this system may be, it does not do a lot for public safety," Pinckney said. "No one is being pulled over. There's nothing immediate to tell the driver, 'Hey, you need to slow down.' I've heard the mayor's argument, but this is an issue we'll have to disagree on."

A GRIM FUTURE?

Brantley said there is little chance Erickson's bill will spark the legislative debate she and others seek.

"I've been told by other members of the House and the Senate that this bill will be killed right away," Brantley said.

Herbkersman said he, too, has doubts about the bill's future, given the vow by Grooms and other lawmakers to block it.

"Do I think this bill will pass? No, I don't think it has a prayer," Herbkersman said. "I'm just hoping we can get this thing to the House floor so we can at least debate it."

Despite the bill's apparently grim future, its mere introduction has earned Erickson the admiration of Hodges and others associated with the camera system.

"I think Rep. Erickson is a courageous lady because she has decided to do what is right, and that is fighting to give this program ... the debate that it deserves," Hodges wrote in an e-mail. She "is very concerned with the safety of our police officers and the motoring public, and she is doing something about it."

Erickson's bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, according to legislative records.

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