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Red light photo tickets for crossing stop line should start with warning, councilwoman says

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Last week, City Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz questioned Denver's photo ticket program when it comes to fines for crossing the stop line; they're the same as if the driver ran a red light. Nonetheless, the full council approved extending the approach through 2012 during a first reading last night. But Mary Beth Susman, Faatz's council colleague, hopes to forestall formal adoption until members consider giving warnings, not tickets, to first-time stop-line violators.

​As the Denver Post has reported, drivers whose wheels wind up on the white stop line at one of four intersections outfitted with photo tickets are hit with the same $75 fine as those who blow through the light entirely. Moreover, a technical improvement launched in April caused the number of tickets, and the attendant revenue, to skyrocket from $230,000 in fines between January and April to $1.3 million from May to October -- and Faatz has been told that 60 percent of the violations are of the white-line variety.

According to Faatz, council wasn't told about the stop-line element of the program before its approval, and she's not sold on its effectiveness. That's why she supports tickets under circumstances when an on-site officer would feel a citation is in order -- especially if someone is in or near the crosswalk at the time -- but not in less clear-cut situations.

For this reason, Faatz turned thumbs-down during an initial vote on renewing the city's $700,000 contract with ACS State and Local Solutions Inc. to run the program through 2012. But because she was on the short end of a 10-2 tally, she said she'd support Councilwoman Jeanne Robb's compromise measure, which retains stop-line tickets but reduces the fine to $40.

Susman would go further, calling for first-time offenders of the stop-line rule to receive a warning rather than a ticket. Why? "Our intention is to change people's behavior," she says. "We don't want them blowing through a red light, but we also want them to know that blocking a crosswalk is dangerous to pedestrians and people in wheelchairs.

"Studies have been done that show the biggest deterrent to breaking a law is the fear of getting caught, not the fear of the punishment. You can increase the punishment, but if the person doesn't feel they'll get caught, it doesn't deter the crime so much. So, if we want to change behavior, a warning may accomplish the same thing."

As a bonus, this change would undermine the impression among many drivers that stop-line ticketing is more about revenue enhancement than safety.

If warnings for stop-line offenses are put in place, "the program may not pay for itself," Susman concedes, "and right now, it does, which is something we're always looking for. But I don't see it as having the intention of moneymaking -- although I know that's how some of the public feels. The fact that it makes money is because we have so many infractions, and I'd rather have the infractions reduced so much that there isn't any money to be made."

Susman wants to postpone a second reading of the contract-renewal proposal so she can bring up these subjects in committee. That way, members of council can find out if the system can be tweaked to send warnings to first-time stop-line scofflaws and consider the financial ramifications. And she's gotten positive feedback from her peers, including committee head Paul Lopez, about such a step being taken.

At the same time, Susman doesn't want to give the impression that she thinks going past the stop line is okay. "People aren't always aware of the endangerment of doing it," she says. "That's why this is such a hot-button issue -- because it hits people who think of themselves as law-abiding citizens."

She adds that "if we do a stop-line enforcement study and learn that it's working -- that it's preventing people from going over the stop line -- it would be great to have something like this at every intersection, at least until we can make significant changes in people's behaviors."

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