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South Carolina: AAA Endorses Illegal Speed Trap
AAA stands up for Ridgeland, South Carolina as the automated speed trap town comes under legislative fire.

Mayor Gary Hodges
A century ago, the forerunners of the American Automobile Association (AAA) provided a service that warned motorists about upcoming speed traps. AAA Carolinas turned away from this history and used its considerable influence on Monday to support a speed trap declared illegal by South Carolina's attorney general and several of its lawmakers. Since August, the tiny town of Ridgeland has allowed a private company to operate a speed camera on Interstate 95 in direct defiance of a state law enacted in June specifically to stop the program (view law).

"All branches of government are facing constricting budgets," a AAA Carolinas statement explained. "Law enforcement agencies will not be able to simply add staff to handle the growing traffic volume and therefore must look to creative solutions to do more with less. This photo-radar enforcement program in the Town of Ridgeland is one such example and should be replicated as opposed to rejected."

AAA insisted Ridgeland was not a speed trap because the profit for the city was not significant for the town of 2500. A total of 8000 tickets have been mailed since August, with Ridgeland's cut worth about $196,000. The private contractor iTraffic will pocket the same amount while the state retains the largest share. AAA based its arguments on material provided by town Mayor Gary W. Hodges who has been furiously lobbying against the legislative assault brewing in Columbia.

Hodges testified on January 26 before a state Senate Transportation subcommittee that his system did not run afoul of the law that targeted Ridgeland. He pointed out a provision that stated traffic tickets could not be "solely" based on photographic evidence.

"The primary evidence in every citation is officer observation supported by radar technology and photographic evidence," Hodges said. "There is an officer observing every violation, if the machine clocks a violation when he is not looking, he deletes it. That is his instruction. If he needs to get up and go to the restroom, he puts the system on pause."

Subcommittee members were not convinced, as the mayor himself described a system that operates on autopilot. One state senator sarcastically pointed out that the police officer, whose salary is covered by iTraffic, must have been "real observant" when he failed to notice one of the speed cameras was rammed by a motorist.

"We can't put issuing any kind of tickets on autopilot," state Senator George E. Campsen (R-Charleston) said. "There's got to be an ability for people to give a defense."

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Grooms grilled Hodges to determine what authority Hodges claimed to operate the program. After Hodges implied that the attorney general had backed away from the decisions that found the program in violation of the law, Grooms zeroed in and asked Hodges directly whether he had any legal opinion or notes from his meetings with the attorney general that suggested what he was doing was legal.

"No sir, not from the attorney general, no sir," Hodges admitted.

The full South Carolina Senate is poised to consider a bill that Grooms introduced, S. 336, that bans the use of tickets based "in whole or in part" on photographic evidence whether or not the device is attended or unattended. The committee struck a provision that would have imposed a $500 penalty for each ticket the system had issued without legal authority.

AAA now derives a significant portion of its revenue from automobile insurance, an amount that increases for each photo enforcement ticket issued in states like California and Arizona where license points apply to photo tickets.

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