Salem appears to be moving toward installing red light cameras, or as they are officially known — traffic control signal violation monitoring systems.
The cameras, once installed, shoot a photo of a license plate on a vehicle that runs a red light. The city then sends that vehicle's driver a moving violation ticket.
The City Council will hold its first meeting on the proposal to install the cameras at 6:30 p.m. on March 21 at City Hall. The initiative, prompted by a request from Mayor Kimberley Driscoll, was referred to the Committee on Public Health, Safety and the Environment, headed by Ward 6 Councilor Paul Prevey, who said he had not reached an opinion on the proposal.
But the issue is controversial enough that the whole council will consider whether to put the cameras in.
Installing the cameras at key intersections has the strong backing of Police Chief Paul Tucker, who believes the cameras will help drivers obey the traffic signals, city councilors said.
Under the proposal before the council, the camera system would be self-funding. Revenues collected from violators are expected to cover the cost of the cameras.
It is not the first time that the camera issue has come up in Salem. Ward 2 Councilor Michael Sosnowski has introduced similar measures several times in the past.
If the council approves installing the new cameras, the city must ask the state legislature to approve it.
Red light cameras have been around since the 1960s. Developed in the Netherlands, the cameras got serious attention in the U.S. after a well-publicized wreck in the 1980s in New York City when a driver ran a red light and hit an 18-month-old girl in a stroller.
But the cameras have proved controversial, with critics questioning whether they actually cause accidents when drivers stop abruptly at lights. Data from the Federal Highway Administration shows that red light cameras decrease side-impact collisions by 25 percent, but may cause a 15 percent increase in the number of rear-impact crashes.
Seven states have banned the cameras.
The Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union questions whether the red-light cameras also violate due process and privacy issues for vehicle owners.
The registered owners or lessees of the vehicles that are caught running the red lights are liable for the violation unless they can prove that another person was driving the vehicle. “Guilt is presumed over innocence,” the ACLU said.
The group is also concerned about violations of privacy. It was not worried about cameras taking photos of license plates, but rather how long the data is stored and the possibly that law enforcement might use the data for other purposes, including tracking a driver's location at a specific moment.
The images, the ACLU said, should be destroyed as soon as possible.