DALTON, Ga. — When this city that bills itself as the "Carpet Capital of the World" installed red-light cameras in 2008, revenue poured in from drivers cited for violations.
At $75 a pop, 6,906 citations were issued that year, mostly for illegal right-on-red turns; 624 citations were issued in February alone.
Then the Georgia Legislature, responding to widespread constituent concerns that red-light cameras were little more than a way to generate revenue for governments, ordered that yellow lights be lengthened by one second at all intersections with traffic cameras. Longer yellow lights would give motorists more time to stop for a red light.
When the law took effect Dec. 31, 2008, citations quickly plummeted. In February 2009, 125 citations were issued from Dalton's cameras.
"That sort of exposed the myth of why they're there," says Mayor David Pennington, an opponent of red-light cameras. "It goes against what I was told to begin with, which is that they are for safety."
Pennington's criticism of red-light cameras — and their sure stream of revenue — is all the more remarkable considering how hard his city was slammed by the recession: As the housing market collapse squeezed the carpet manufacturing industry, unemployment in Dalton soared from 3.5% in 2007 to 12.5% in 2009, one of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S., he says.
Instead of bemoaning the lost revenue, Pennington slashed government spending from $36 million to just less than $29 million and cut the city's workforce by about 60 people.
He led efforts to cut property taxes by 20% and the city's business inventory tax by 20% and reduced business license fees by 25%-50%.
"We're one of the few governments that are operating in the black at the same time that we cut taxes," says Pennington, 57, who is in his first term as mayor. He is an independent with a Libertarian streak.
Despite a backlash against cameras in some places, some jurisdictions continue to add them, including about 60 last year, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which supports traffic cameras.
One such community is Muscatine, Iowa, which voted Dec. 17 to install red-light cameras this year. The vote was 6-1, the only "no" vote coming from Robert Howard. "It concerns me whether this is a potential tax revenue source," he says. "It's set up to encourage governments to possibly change the duration of yellow-light settings, so they can write additional tickets."
The yellow-light issue addressed by the Georgia Legislature focused on a key debate involving the cameras.
Opponents say that local jurisdictions often set the cameras with short yellow lights designed to nab more violators and produce more revenue and that an unusually high percentage of violators are cited for illegal right-on-red turns, which cause relatively few crashes.
"Yellow is the key to safety at intersections, not cameras," says activist Greg Mauz, a longtime camera opponent. "There's a shortage of yellow time at almost every intersection where cameras are."
In Dalton, skepticism about the cameras remains high. "Nobody's ever been able to prove to me how these things prevent accidents," Pennington says. "If they could, I would change my position."
At the end of February, Dalton's cameras came down.
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