WASHINGTON – Ann Sweet's daughter, two weeks from getting married, was killed when a semitrailer ran a red light. Since that 1997 accident, Sweet has avidly supported using cameras to nab red light runners.
She faces a formidable foe: House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
A House committee debated the merits of the cameras Tuesday, with arguments on the fatalities caused by red light runners competing with charges that the cameras intrude on privacy.
Armey didn't make it to the hearing, but even without his testimony his interest in the issue is well known on Capitol Hill.
"It's time we re-evaluated the government's role in promoting law enforcement by machines that undermine our privacy and system of laws," Armey said in a statement.
Sweet didn't testify, either, but her story was relayed by a red light camera proponent.
"I think the widespread use of cameras would promote a behavior change throughout the country," Sweet said in an interview.
At least 50 cities use the cameras, which snap photos of vehicles driving through red lights. Citations, usually the equivalent of a parking ticket, are mailed to owners tracked down through plate numbers in photos.
In Armey's home state, the Texas Legislature has rejected statewide installment of the cameras during its past two sessions.
But the city of Garland, a home-rule city, should have five cameras up in about two weeks. Violators nabbed by the cameras will get $75 citations.
"We had found that traditional law-enforcement methods weren't working very well. There are some intersections that you can't enforce very well due to design," said Brad Neighbor, Garland's first assistant city attorney. "Even when the officer is downstream from traffic, your are putting the officer and people who use the street in significant danger, because they have to inject themselves into the traffic flow in order to get (the violators) stopped."
In the District of Columbia, the cameras were installed after residents named aggressive driving and red light running as the major safety issues they'd like to see addressed, said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's delegate to the House.
But other cities like San Diego have rebelled against use of the technology. In that city, three attorneys are seeking the dismissal of 398 tickets in a broad challenge to the cameras.
Judith Stone, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told committee members that an estimated 260,000 crashes are caused by red light runners every year, with more than 750 of them fatal.
She said that at several intersections where cameras have been used, violations and injuries have dropped.
"I seriously doubt anyone in this hearing room would ever question or oppose proven technology that would eliminate near-misses or midair collisions by airplanes," Stone said.
Her arguments were countered by Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who said the cameras could eviscerate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
Witnesses gave two pictures of how the cameras are operating at local levels. Roger Hedgecock, a San Diego radio talk show host and former mayor, said the San Diego system uses private contractor Lockheed Martin to match photos of license plates with owners. The company has access to the state motor vehicle database.
Howard County Police Chief Wayne Livesay said his department signs off on every citation and the vendor is not given access to motor vehicle databases.
In both cases, the contractor is paid per citation, although Livesay said his office was considering paying its vendor a flat fee.
Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., said if the cameras are being used unfairly, those who object should "fix it at the local level."
"Yes this is a free country, but I remind all those who objected that this is a refereed freedom," he said. "We have to have respect for others."