Camera use should stop until issue hammered out

A postponement here, an amendment there, it all adds up to a stalled effort to ban Ridgeland's use of traffic cameras to enforce speeding laws on Interstate 95.

It also adds up to weeks, perhaps months, of continued camera use despite clear signals that a majority of lawmakers want it to stop, at least as it has been practiced by Ridgeland and the private firm iTraffic.

The legislature may disappoint, but it seldom surprises. It is not all that unusual -- particularly as the session wanes -- for a bill that seems sure to pass to fade at the finish.

The bill to ban use of the cameras, pushed by state Sen. Larry Grooms of Berkeley County, passed the Senate at the end of March and went to the House. The House Judiciary Committee sent it to the full House for a vote on May 18. That's when state Rep. Andy Patrick of Hilton Head Island requested a 24-hour delay on the legislation. He said he wanted to give his colleagues more time to weigh the possible downside of a statewide ban on automated traffic enforcement.

They seemed to think the bill was a good idea. On May 26, the house voted House voted 99-1 to approve it on second reading. On Wednesday, it gave final approval to an amended version of the bill in a 92-0 vote.

The amendment would allow law enforcement agencies to take longer than one hour to issue a speeding ticket if a crash occurred and fault could not be immediately determined, or if the driver at fault is receiving medical treatment and not immediately accessible.

The amendment sent it back to the Senate, where state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, moved Thursday -- the final day of the regular session -- to amend it. That pushed it off the Senate calendar, and the bill was carried over.

As described by Grooms, Sheheen's amendment would allow municipalities to use speed cameras to issue tickets for violating a local ordinance -- as Ridgeland does -- and allow law enforcement officers to mail tickets to drivers if the officer thinks handing the ticket to the driver would be "unnecessarily dangerous."

In February, Sheheen used Senate rules to postpone debate on the measure.

The legislature is scheduled to come back June 14 for a special session to tie up some loose ends, such as the budget and redistricting. Grooms said he didn't know whether there would be time to debate the traffic camera bill then.

"If not," he said, "the bill will be one of the first orders of business in January."

Bills pick up where they left off next year because it is the second year of the two-year session.

Still out there this year is a budget provision that would reduce state aid to local governments that are using cameras for traffic enforcement. That might not stop Ridgeland, but it could give pause to other local governments.

With all the questions raised about the Ridgeland operation, particularly its for-profit component with iTraffic, the cameras should be put away until lawmakers can work through the issues. It's not like lawmakers to cede authority to local governments, and this is one instance where a broader perspective would be welcome.

The bill, through the efforts of state Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort, calls for a detailed inquiry into myriad legal ramifications of the cameras' use, particularly a private company's involvement in enforcing traffic laws and whether a state agency should operate the systems rather than local law enforcement.

Those who say they want to make sure we understand all the ramifications of using cameras to enforce traffic laws should not stand in the way of the inquiry laid out in the bill.