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A photo-op for red-light runners?

Automobile owners are often very fond of their vehicles and treat them with delicate care, almost like a child or pet.

But how many Utahns have an action photo of themselves behind the wheel?Many drivers could be receiving one in the mail, courtesy of a Utah city, town or county, if the Legislature passes HB13. The measure would allow local governments to take pictures of certain motorists as they drive through intersections and send them a copy.

A charming keepsake suitable for framing? Not exactly.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Orville Carnahan, R-Taylorsville, would permit the use of photo-detection equipment to catch and penalize drivers who run red lights.

The photo would be accompanied by the date, time and location the driver allegedly ran a red light and could include either a warning or a citation with a fine.

"The purpose is to try to stop an increasing number of people who feel they can safely run red lights," Carnahan told the House Transportation Committee on Wednesday during the first debate of his bill.

Carnahan said of the 41,000 people killed in U.S. traffic accidents in 1995, 20 percent died as a result of a traffic-light violation. And no one on the committee disputed that ignoring red lights is a problem in Utah.

But is photo detection the best way to tackle the issue? Carnahan said most of the 15 American cities and counties that use remote cameras to enforce traffic-signal laws have experienced a significant reduction in traffic-light violations - as much as 92 percent in Compton, Calif., and 67 percent in Jackson, Mich.

A majority of Utahns seem to think photo detection could have a similar impact here and favor a state law to allow it, according to a recent Deseret News survey.

The opinion poll, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates Jan. 8-10, asked 603 Utahns if they supported the use of Photo-Cop equipment to ticket drivers who run red lights. Sixty percent said they liked that idea. Thirty-nine percent said they oppose the concept.

Not surprisingly, only 1 percent of those surveyed said they didn't know what they thought about it. The use of photo-radar equipment to catch Utah speeders was an emotional issue and was finally banned, except in very limited uses, by the 1996 Legislature.

Some members of the House committee, it was clear Wednesday, haven't forgotten their distaste for PhotoCop. Rep. Gerry Adair, R-Roy, said he doesn't like Carnahan's bill. He motioned for the committee to adjourn, and the request was granted, before the committee could take a vote.

Committee discussion of the bill will continue Friday at 8:30 a.m. in room 405 of the Capitol. Supporters think they'll get enough votes to at least move the bill out of committee and onto the House floor.

"I thought I heard some pretty good sentiment for it," said Rep. Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake City, a committee member who favors the measure.

Rep. Marda Dillree, R-Farmington, told her colleagues truck drivers are some of the most frequent offenders, habitually proceeding through red lights without stopping in the early morning hours. She detailed a serious accident caused by a trucker who didn't even brake at a red light.

"We need to give the municipalities the tools they need to make us slow ourselves down," she told the committee.

Dave Spatafore, a lobbyist for the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said his organization supports the bill, but added that local communities aren't champing at the bit to place cameras at intersections. The league appreciates that the bill doesn't force cities to use photo detection to enforce signal laws but gives them that option, he said.

Carnahan said opponents may consider photo detection to be "Big Brother picking on that driver, and it may be." But, he said, an officer certainly would stop and ticket any driver running a red light, and local governments simply can't afford to hire enough officers to enforce traffic-signal laws as effectively as remote cameras can.

Some Utahns, he said, say they prefer "to be faced by our accuser." But he argued that receiving a picture and ticket in the mail is far less embarrassing than being pulled over on the side of the road for 20 minutes.

The bill would allow photo detection only with the approval of the city council, county commission or other local authority. It requires signs telling drivers that photo detection may be in operation at a given intersection.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Deseret News poll

Several years ago, legislators banned PhotoCop from Utah highways except in very limited areas. Now there is a proposal to have a type of PhotoCop take pictures of cars that run red lights and send a ticket to the owner of the offending car. Do you favor or oppose using PhotoCop to ticket drivers who run red lights?

Strongly favor 44%

Somewhat favor 16%

Somewhat oppose 11%

Strongly oppose 28%

Don't know 1%

This poll of 603 Utah residents was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates Jan. 8-10, 1998. It has a margin of error of +/-4 percent.