Members of the Finance Committee weighed the value of personal liberties against traffic safety before passing a bill that will allow some municipalities to install cameras to help catch drivers violating the law at intersections.
The bill, which was repeatedly described as a work in progress, creates a pilot program allowing towns with populations exceeding 48,000 to install the cameras. The cameras will photograph the license plates of vehicles running red lights or otherwise breaking the law. Owners of vehicles photographed would be issued infractions of up to $50 by mail.
Though the bill passed 31-19, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had concerns about privacy and government intrusion into the lives of residents.
“There are two ends of the spectrum — liberty and security. We find ourselves time and time again giving up our liberty for security,” Sen. Andrew Roraback said. “… We are essentially giving up the liberty of being able to move about the world without the eye of government upon us.”
Roraback, a Republican from Goshen, likened the cameras to putting microchips in every vehicle to ensure no one was driving over the speed limit.
Rep. Jack Hennessy, D-Bridgeport, invoked George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
“I consider this a Big Brother bill. I’ve never supported it,” Hennessy said.
Roraback suggested the bill might be driven more by the desire to increase revenue to towns than increasing safety. Rep. Edward Moukawsher, D-Groton, said the pilot program is just another way to “fleece” the public for additional revenue.
“I think we’re being over-zealous. I think we’re trying to rationalize some basis for raising revenue, which I think is unfair to people,” he said.
However, Sen. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, said the bill is about safety. Even if it does ask Connecticut residents to give up some privacy, it will make intersections safer, he said.
“I think it’s worth it to give up some of those civil liberties and privacy in the interest of safety,” he said.
Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, said he had trouble accepting the argument that the cameras will intrude on civil liberties because they only apply to people breaking the law.
“I’m not sure I see it that way. The liberty to do what? Liberty to break the law? Liberty to run a red light?” he asked.
Other lawmakers, like Rep. Tim Ackert, R-Coventry, expressed concerns about how the bill might impact businesses. Ackert said he runs a business where his employees drive company vehicles.
The cameras will only photograph rear license plates and not the faces of drivers, so if an employee runs a light, the ticket will go to the business, he said. Employers will have few options to recoup the money from employees, Ackert said.
However, LeBeau said he actually had a similar experience when his son was driving his vehicle in New York and was caught by a camera.
“I got a ticket but I was able to challenge it,” he said.
There is language in the bill ensuring anyone ticketed by a camera has the opportunity to appeal the infraction, he said.
Though the committee’s co-chairwoman, Rep. Patricia Widlitz, said the bill is likely to be altered at some point to reduce the number of municipalities eligible, Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, said his town wants to be able to install the cameras.
They would help police enforce traffic laws at intersections near the Buckland Hills mall, which become very dangerous during the holiday season, Cassano said.
“My town of Manchester is a death zone around Christmas time,” he said.
According to the bill’s fiscal analysis, the cameras will cost towns between $50,000 and $75,000 for installation and maintenance. However, towns can expect an increase in revenue depending upon how many people are ticketed and how many of them pay the fines.
For instance, if 20 people are ticketed a day and 60 percent of them pay the $50, a town would see an annual revenue bump of $255,500.
The state on the other hand, stands to lose money if the cameras are installed. The automatic tickets would displace fines currently issued by police, which go into to the state budget.
“A loss in excess of $100,000 would be expected if a large scale program is implemented,” the note reads.