AAA Carolinas on Monday endorsed the town of Ridgeland's controversial use of cameras to cite speeders on Interstate 95.
The affiliate of the American Automobile Association lauded the cameras as "a public safety success story," opposed a bill that would ban the cameras and urged the organization's members to contact lawmakers.
The nonprofit organization has about 1.8 million members in North Carolina and South Carolina.
AAA Carolinas officials said lawmakers "should encourage creative problem-solving in government instead of removing proven, life-saving solutions."
AAA Carolinas president and CEO David Parsons said the town's example should be replicated as a way for cash-strapped law-enforcement agencies to watch over the drivers likely to hit the road in increasing numbers as the economy rebounds.
"Ridgeland Mayor Gary Hodges has produced a rapid improvement in traffic safety in Ridgeland," Parsons said in a news release. "South Carolina needs more out-of-the-box thinking to decrease the cost of enforcing traffic safety laws while making our highways safer."
Attempts Monday to reach Hodges for comment were unsuccessful.
The rate of wrecks has decreased from 7.8 per month to 5.8 since the cameras were deployed in August, AAA Carolinas said, citing town statistics. The organization's news release noted that more than 7 million vehicles traveled I-95 through Ridgeland without a single traffic fatality or wreck resulting in hospitalization in the six months since the town deployed the cameras.
In seven months before the cameras, four fatal crashes and nine serious injuries occurred on Ridgeland's 7.3 miles of the interstate, AAA Carolinas said.
AAA Carolinas' endorsement comes as state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, is pushing a bill that would outlaw Ridgeland's practice. The bill was approved last week by the Senate's Transportation Committee, which Grooms chairs.
Grooms said recent statistics show traffic fatalities have decreased statewide -- not just in Ridgeland -- which he said indicates the town's improved statistics shouldn't be attributed to the cameras.
He also questioned whether Ridgeland's goal is making drivers safer, saying the town's cameras allow people traveling faster than 100 mph to proceed unimpeded down the interstate.
"If it's about public safety, let the officer the stop the drivers that are making the roads unsafe," Grooms said. "Don't take their picture and mail them a ticket a couple weeks later."
A spokesman said AAA Carolinas, which monitors traffic-safety issues in the General Assembly, decided to support the town after seeking more information from it about the cameras.
In Ridgeland's system, a police officer operates radar and camera equipment inside an RV parked near the highway, and the town mails tickets to offenders. 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.
Critics have decried the practice as a profit-driven "speed trap" that violates drivers' due-process rights and sets a dangerous precedent that could prompt more automated law enforcement.
But AAA Carolinas officials said the system is a fair way to make the highways safer in a state that consistently ranks among the worst in the nation for traffic fatalities.
AAA Carolinas officials oppose Grooms' bill -- S.336 -- and support a competing bill that would make the cameras legal.
The latter bill -- H.3443 -- was proposed by Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort. Co-sponsors include Reps. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head Island, and Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton. That bill remains in the House Judiciary Committee.