Beaufort News

Bill to ban Ridgeland traffic cameras advances in SC House

COLUMBIA -- The General Assembly took another step Wednesday toward shuttering the controversial speed enforcement cameras on I-95 in Ridgeland.

A House subcommittee approved a bill that makes it illegal for the cameras to operate even though the Ridgeland mayor and the camera's creator pleaded their case that lives are being saved because motorists are being forced to slow down.

Their words fell on deaf ears as the panel unanimously voted to send the bill to the full House Judiciary Committee. The measure already has been approved by the Senate.

After the meeting, Ridgeland Mayor Gary Hodges criticized the panel, especially S.C. Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, who made the motion to move the bill along. Rutherford is one of the lawyers representing motorists who have sued the town over the cameras.

"You see what we get up here?" Hodges asked.

Ridgeland set up the cameras 10 months ago to enforce speed limits on the 7.3 mile stretch of I-95 that passes through the town. An estimated 40,000 cars a day drive through the town, Hodges said. The cameras are there to protect people from traffic accidents, he said.

"I can let them run over each other or I can try to stop them," Hodges said.

But motorists have complained that the town set up a speed trap to boost revenues and to target out-of-state motorists. Those complaints have reached legislators' ears although no one testified against the cameras at the hearing.

A police officer monitors the cameras inside an SUV parked along the interstate. Once radar clocks a motorist driving 81 miles per hour or faster, the cameras snap a picture of the driver and the car's license plate. The officer compares the driver's picture with the license that matches the car's registration. If there is a match, the ticket is mailed to the driver.

The majority of tickets are issued to people driving between 81 to 85 mph, which gets them a $133 fine. There are no points assessed against the driver's record, and the ticket is not reported to insurance companies, Hodges said.

Ridgeland issued an estimated 10,000 tickets during the camera's first nine months, Hodges said. The first 63 percent of the money collected is sent to the state to fund various programs, he said. That means the town has about $49 leftover on a $133 ticket. It splits that leftover money with iTraffic Safety, the company which created and owns the cameras.

Rutherford and two other attorneys filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Ridgeland for its use of the cameras. U.S. District Judge Sol Blatt dismissed all of the plaintiffs who had their tickets dropped by the town or those who already had paid their fines. The remaining plaintiffs were given time to file an amended complaint.

The town received support at Wednesday's hearing from AAA Carolinas, which represents nearly two million drivers in North Carolina and South Carolina. South Carolina has the third-highest rate of fatalities per mile driven in the nation, said Tom Crosby, AAA Carolinas spokesman.

Forcing drivers to slow down should improve that ranking, he said.

"AAA Carolinas thinks Ridgeland should be complimented for their enforcement, not condemned, he said.

William Danzell, chairman of iTraffic, cast the cameras' value as a police officer safety tool, saying it prevents officers from having to stand on the side of a busy highway as cars speed by.

"You do a high speed chase, and then you do a clerical function on the side of the road," Danzell said about the traditional method of police issuing speeding tickets.

The cameras are reliable and high-tech so no one is receiving a ticket they did not deserve, he said. Plus, two officers double-check each ticket before it is issued to make sure the system is fair.

"Here in South Carolina, we're turning our back to technology," Danzell said. "We're turning our back to workplace safety. For what? So people can speed without getting a ticket."