published Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Hamilton County to buy 2 speed cameras

Poll
Do you speed a lot?

In other business commissioners:

  • Deferred a resolution to accept a $94,043 bid from Dell Marketing for the county information technology department.
  • Accepted a $148,213 contract with the Atlantic Group for digital orthophotography for the county's geographic information system.
  • Approved a $50,000 payment to PSC Metals for two easements for construction of the Tennessee Riverwalk Downtown Segment.

Drivers in Hamilton County soon can be ticketed for speeding without ever being pulled over.

With no public notice Wednesday, county commissioners voted 5-4 to allow Sheriff Jim Hammond to contract with a Nashville-area company for two camera-equipped speed detection lasers.

With those, deputies can zap speeding drivers and have a ticket mailed to them within the week.

District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd was the most vehement opponent of the measure.

He said there's no way for the light detection and ranging -- or LIDAR -- devices to know who is actually driving a car, unless an officer makes contact. The owner could be ticketed for an offense committed by a friend or relative.

"So in essence, you are sending this citation to an inanimate object?" Boyd asked.

On the other side, District 5 Commissioner Greg Beck moved to pass the measure, saying the move would make it safer for officers to do their jobs. Beck is a Chattanooga City Court officer.

District 3 Commissioner Marty Haynes seconded the motion, highlighting that it will allow deputies to enforce speed on two-lane roads that are dangerous to police, such as Fairview Road.

Hammond said owners are ultimately responsible for their vehicles. He said the same principle is used for parking tickets.

Brentwood-based Applied Technology Partners got the contract. Company President John McConnell, who is not a law enforcement or judicial official, told commissioners that residents who are wrongly cited need only to sign a sworn affidavit stating they were not driving the car, and the ticket could be transferred to the appropriate driver.

That didn't cut it for Boyd.

"I don't like fee-grabbing in any community, and I don't want to give our officers a toy to increase revenue," Boyd said. "I have deep issues with private entities getting involved in profiting off ... peoples' mistakes."

"This is not a toy," Hammond retorted.

The action took place in a combined agenda and voting session, which meant the public didn't learn about the idea until moments before the meeting started instead of the usual week.

William Groves, a 21-year-old bondsman, just happened to sit in on the meeting Wednesday.

  • photo
    Speeders are tracked from a Tennessee Highway Patrol car in this file photo.

"I just decided to stop in because I was [in the courthouse]. The main problem is the public didn't get a word in, because of snow days," Groves said.

Groves has concerns about the ability to enforce the civil tickets. He says residents will likely dispose of the tickets as "junk mail." And teen drivers may outsmart the system.

"If you are driving your mom's car and speeding, you just get your hands on the mail and no one knows. What's the repercussion if they don't pay it?" Groves said.

By afternoon, other county residents were voicing disapproval on social media.

McConnell said the company sends unpaid tickets to collections, but the debt cannot be placed on a person's credit history.

•••

The LIDAR devices will allow officers to take videos of drivers who are speeding, capture their license plate numbers and send that information to the company. Applied Technology will then mail a $50 civil speeding ticket to the car's registered owner. Civil tickets do not strike points off a driver's license.

The company gets to pocket $25 of the ticket to cover administration costs and equipment maintenance. The other half of the ticket will be split between the county general fund and a new county driver education program fund, each getting $12.50.

According to the resolution as passed, that fund will be under the Hamilton County Department of Education, and therefore in the hands of the school board. But during the meeting, Hammond said schools are not involved in the program.

Hammond said he's hoping to use Chattanooga as a model. Chattanooga has a driver education program for city residents that is funded completely by traffic camera citation revenue.

Chattanooga residents ages 15 to 22 can pay $50 for a five-week course from a private company contracted by the city. At the end of the course, if the driver passes, the city pays the remaining $300 charge. If the driver fails, the resident is on the hook for the $300.

Caroline Johnson, who runs the city's program, said Chattanooga serves about 460 drivers per year to the tune of $138,000.

"Over the four years, we have graduated 1,800 kids. That's an enormous slice of the population of teen drivers," she said. "I am so excited to see that we are looking at ways to incorporate county kids. That thrills me."

For the county to replicate that, the new devices would have to generate 11,040 citations in a year -- or 30 a day. But that wouldn't cover the need in the larger county: 23,195 licensed drivers between the ages of 15 and 22, according to Dalya Qualls, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

Hammond also told commissioners the devices would only be used in school zones, construction zones and "other problem areas" -- a label District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey called "a catchall for anything."

Traffic cameras that bust speeders or red-light runners have caused controversy nationwide. The Governors Highway Safety Association says 12 states have prohibited the use of speed enforcement cameras, and nine have prohibited red-light cameras. But not Tennessee.

Locally, traffic cameras caused a years-long uproar in Red Bank. Opponents said the stationary, unmanned cameras scared visitors from driving through the city and hurt commerce. In early 2013, the city scrapped the program.

Meanwhile, the Chattanooga Police Department has five camera-equipped "speed vans" to park around the city and catch speeders. Chattanooga citation statistics were not available Wednesday.

Commissioners Chester Bankston, Beck, Jim Fields, Haynes and Larry Henry voted for the measure.

Commissioners Boyd, Joe Graham, Mackey and Fred Skillern voted against it.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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