Camera debate should include company's role

Beaufort County lawmakers stepping across the county line to help with Ridgeland's traffic cameras raises a simple question: Why?

No interstates travel through Beaufort County. No municipality in the county has expressed interest in traffic cameras. Beaufort County has expressed no interest.

The answers from state Reps. Shannon Erickson, Bill Herbkersman and Andy Patrick to date have ranged from concerns about safety, assurances based on their visits that it's a good program and the desire to prompt "debate" on the issue.

Another answer is that principals and investors in iTraffic live in Beaufort County. That's the private company that supplied the cameras, paid to set up the system, including officer and administrative salaries, and splits proceeds with Ridgeland.

The company moved its headquarters from Bluffton to Ridgeland as part of its deal with Ridgeland.

Lawmakers pride themselves on their "relationships" and don't often cross what a local delegation wants if it doesn't affect their district. That's the case in Jasper County. Its representatives in the state House and Senate say they're opposed to the traffic cameras.

Erickson says it isn't just a Jasper County issue, that using cameras to enforce speed laws has statewide implications. That's true. It's also true that iTraffic wants to sell its system elsewhere. It has had some success, but not much luck in South Carolina. That's due to the law passed last year in an effort to stop the cameras' use and because of another bill this year from state Sen. Larry Grooms, which attempts to close whatever loopholes might exist in last year's law. Grooms' bill also would require Ridgeland to pay back fines collected and pay the state $500 for each ticket issued. That's a strong disincentive to install cameras.

And there's the matter of a federal lawsuit filed over tickets issued as a result of using the cameras.

If Erickson and the others want debate on the issue, we suggest they put this on the list of points to discuss: Should a private company profit from law enforcement? The more tickets issued and fines paid, the more money iTraffic gets.

That leads people to question the motives behind this system. Ridgeland's mayor testified to a Senate committee on Jan. 26 that about 8,000 tickets had been issued since August and the city had netted about $100,000. Eighty percent to 90 percent of the tickets went to out-of-state drivers.

They also might want to discuss the system's impact on South Carolina's and Beaufort County's largest industry -- tourism. About 80 percent of Hilton Head Island's 2 million visitors a year drive here, many of them traveling Interstate 95.

Camera supporters might argue increased safety for those tourists, but it's not conclusive that the cameras have made that stretch of I-95 safer. Some question it, especially since violators continue down the road unheeded. Six months of operation is not enough time to say definitively that it's made driving there safer. Long-term data both before and after the cameras' use would have to be examined.

In the meantime, we'll see which bill moves ahead in the legislature -- Grooms' bill to stop the cameras or Erickson's bill to keep them firing away.