Traffic cameras bring tiny Ohio village to a stop
ELMWOOD PLACE, Ohio – This little village had a big problem.
Each day, thousands of cars – sometimes as many as 18,000 – rolled along Elmwood Place’s streets, crossing the third-of-a-mile town to get to neighboring Cincinnati or major employers in bustling suburbs or heavily traveled Interstate 75. Many zipped by Elmwood Place’s modest homes and small businesses at speeds well above the 25 mph limit.
Bedeviled by tight budgets, the police force was undermanned. The situation, villagers feared, was dangerous.
Then the cameras were turned on, and all hell broke loose.
Like hundreds of other U.S. communities big and small, Elmwood Place hired an outside company to install cameras to record traffic violations and mail out citations.
In the first month after the cameras began operating, late last year, 6,600 tickets went out – more than triple the village’s population. Before some unsuspecting drivers realized it, they had racked up multiple $105 citations they would learn about when their mail arrived weeks later. Some 70 parishioners, or more than half the congregation at Our Lady of Lavang Catholic Community Church, were ticketed on one Sunday last September.
Soon, there was a Facebook page promoting a boycott of the village, a petition drive against cameras, and a lawsuit against the village that threatened to wreck Elmwood Place financially. Four council members resigned. And an atmosphere of distrust and uneasiness hung over a village that traced its roots back to the 19th century, before traffic cameras or even automotive traffic.
“I think Elmwood Place tried to do something, but maybe not in the right way,” said Catherine Jones, who brought a chair and small table out of her namesake Southern-style restaurant on a recent afternoon and sat in the sun as she read her Bible and wrote out notes about the verses.
Just last year, she recalled, a pedestrian was hit and killed a couple blocks from her restaurant, near an elementary school. So she understood that something had to be done. But now she is among many small business owners worried that the cameras have given the village a speed-trap stigma.
Few things will rile citizens quicker than getting tickets in the mail, along with photos of their vehicles under a red light. The letters usually inform them they will not be assessed traffic violation “points”; nor will their insurance company be contacted. But they must pay up, or face a collection agency and damage to their credit ratings.
Supporters of camera enforcement say they stretch law enforcement resources, and they usually result in safer driving and thus save lives. Opponents see cameras giving governments a way to grab more money from taxpayer pockets, putting local policing in the hands of remote, for-profit companies, and taking society another step toward an Orwellian state of constant surveillance for misbehavior.
In Arizona, where two large photo enforcement companies are based, red-light and speed enforcement cameras have been a matter of contention for years. Gov. Jan Brewer scuttled a state program that put speed-enforcement cameras on freeways and interstates in 2010 when a contract expired; efforts to ban the devices used by many cities and towns are a yearly fixture in the Legislature.
In February, San Diego followed Los Angeles and Pasadena in dropping traffic camera citations; the mayor said they bred disrespect for the law because residents believed they were meant to make money, not reduce accidents. Legislation to require communities to get state permits before installing traffic cameras stalled this year in Iowa, while a group called Stop Big Brother has been trying to head off cameras in Iowa City.