What do we do when we are divided against ourselves? I came face to face with this dilemma over a proposed bill during the 2010 Legislative Session.
The mayor of Selma said, “We need your help with a local bill. It’s to put cameras on traffic lights. It will stop so many persons from running red lights.” Mayor Evans said it with a matter of fact tone but it hit me in the guts.
This idea of cameras on traffic signals has come before the Alabama Senate on several occasions as a statewide bill. I was always against it. It never passed the senate. Then cities began passing local bills that authorized cameras on traffic signals. I had voted for some of these bills out of “local courtesy.” Local courtesy is supporting something in another legislator’s district whether we agree with the idea or not. In my heart, I was still opposed to cameras on traffic signals.
In addition, I had just recently read an article about the movement against cameras at traffic signals. Several jurisdictions that had installed such cameras had reversed themselves and were taking them down. That article supported my gut feeling and I told Mayor Evans about it. I was not certain what I would do. Still, I agreed to introduce the local bill although I was not certain that I would pass it. I told the mayor just that.
Then the mayor and I were talking with Alisa Summerville of Alabama Power Company about various community challenges when the subject of these cameras came up. She was so passionate about the number of persons running red lights in Selma and had been nearly hit several times by “red light runners.” She said, “Selma is the worst red light running place in which I have lived.” Others said similar things but I was not convinced. My gut said “no;” my mind said “yes.”
As I talked to other persons about cameras on traffic signals, they were divided. One man said he got two tickets in Montgomery; one he thought he deserved; and the other he thought he did not deserve. This person was a fellow senator.
The main arguments for cameras on traffic signals are as follows: (1) they stop some drivers from running red lights, making it safer for everyone; (2) they help resolve issues about who had the green light when accidents happen; (3) they help stop and solve crime in areas around the lights; and (4) they help increase revenues for the cities and towns. There are others but these are central in support of cameras on traffic signals.
These are the main arguments against cameras at traffic signals: (1) they invade our privacy; (2) they are sometimes abused by setting photo timings to increase revenues rather than increase safety; and (3) the cameras catch the auto tag but the owner is ticketed regardless of who the driver may have been. There are others but these are the central ones against cameras on traffic signals.
I really try to give strong presumptions to requests from cities, towns, and counties. After all, they are on the front lines and have the basic responsibility for making most things work. The cameras on traffic signals certainly fall into that category but I was still divided.
The mayor’s people gave the bill to Representative Yusuf Salaam to introduce. It passed the house and came to the senate. I was still divided against myself.
The bill was introduced in the legislature late in the session. It passed the house and came from the house to the senate. I still was not sure I would pass it because I was divided.
As the legislator representing Selma and Dallas County, I had the responsibility for signing or not signing the bill out of #1 Local Legislation Committee. I had to make up my mind one way or the other but I still had a catch: I could sign the bill out of committee but not pass it on the senate Floor. I signed it out of committee.
Mayor Evans had assured me that there would be no misuse of the cameras for revenue purposes. I responded by saying he, the mayor, would never know what the police department was doing. Moreover, he would not be in office forever. Even if the mayor insured that the cameras were used fairly during his administration, there was no way to insure what would happen under the next mayor. I was still divided.
I was really concerned about the safety of those driving and walking the streets of Selma. I am also very concerned about solving crimes. I want the city revenue to do well. But I was still divided.
I finally allowed the bill to pass. I hope I am not sorry. I hope I did the right thing.
EPILOGUE – Policy and positions are rarely simple unless we are simple minded. There are always competing principles to be considered. This is true not only for individuals, but for cities and even countries. I experienced all three this week.
About the author: Hank Sanders represents the 23rd Senate District in Alabama.