VIDEO IMAGES have been a staple of law enforcement since the first banks trained surveillance cameras on their vaults. Over the years, they have become ubiquitous, migrating from the banks to convenience stores and government buildings, homes and even street corners. Just last month, the Columbia City Council agreed to mount dozens more cameras in commercial and residential neighborhoods.
The reasons are obvious: Police can’t be in all places at all times, and cameras can capture evidence to help identify and convict criminals; perhaps even more importantly, everybody knows the power of those images, so the presence of video cameras can deter crime.
But they can’t perform either role if the law doesn’t allow them, and unfortunately our Legislature hasn’t been as willing as it should to allow the use of video images, at least not when it comes to traffic enforcement. This may seem ironic, given that we have some of the most dangerous highways in the nation; on the other hand, the mentality that leads to our state’s limits might be one of the reasons our highways are so deadly.
Whichever the case, it was good to see the Legislature take action this year to allow police to charge drivers with passing stopped school buses based on video images taken aboard the buses, rather than requiring police to witness the violations.
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We’ve been fortunate not to have any recent tragedies as a result of cars passing stopped school buses, but that’s not for want of trying on the part of drivers. According to The Associated Press, a one-day survey in June by just a third of the state’s school districts reported 388 illegally passing vehicles.
Several districts already are equipping school buses with special cameras that will videotape different angles of a vehicle that is passing a stopped bus illegally, so police can identify the license plate and the driver. Among them is Lexington-Richland District 5, which is using eight donated cameras and hopes to purchase 10 more by mid-month.
We’re not sure that districts can justify the $1,000 per bus cost, but we’re sure that the Legislature made the right choice in allowing police to issue tickets based on the evidence those cameras produce. Drivers still will be able to go to court and argue that they aren’t guilty, or that there were extenuating circumstances, but they no longer will be free to ignore this important safety law just because there aren’t any police present.
We hope the new law signals a retreat from the nonsensical approach to highway safety that the Legislature took with its 2011 law that prohibited police from issuing tickets “based in whole or in part upon photographic evidence.”
That law — which remains on the books, now with an exception carved out for school bus video — was passed in response to a traffic-camera system that the Jasper County town of Ridgeland installed to ticket speeders who flew up and down the section of I-95 that runs through the town.
The Governors Highway Safety Association supports speed cameras, and AAA Carolinas called the Ridgeway program “a public safety success story,” but legislators worried that … well, honestly, we never really understood what legislators were so worried about. We suppose the same sorts of things that worried them when they fought so hard against radar guns and breathalyzers and laws allowing police to actually stop people for breaking the law, or charge them with breaking a law just because it’s the law.
Whatever the case, at least our lawmakers are willing to allow video cameras to be used to make it a little less dangerous for children to get on and off of the school bus. Who knows? Maybe this will be the first step toward embracing modern technology on our highways.