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There is no substitute for a traffic cop


Thank you, Rep. Greg Matthews, for bringing your reasoned and experienced voice as a former traffic cop to bear on the discussion regarding photo radar in school zones.

Matthews was among the state House members who voted against a bill that would have given cities across Oregon the authority to allow photo radar within school zones.

Matthews lost in the earlier debate, as the bill was passed by the House and soon landed in the lap of the Senate Business and Transportation Committee. Once there, the bill was amended — gutted, really — whittled down to a pilot project inside the city of Fairview. Upon its return to the House, it received a frosty greeting, with representatives refusing to go along with the Senate tinkering.

And with only two weeks remaining before the deadline, we hope the bill continues to languish. This was never one of the better pieces of legislation up for consideration during this session.

We have no doubt that Rep. Chris Gorsek, D-Troutdale, had only the best interests of children in mind as he introduced the original bill. There is no doubt that at its core, this was a bill with good intentions.

This reminds us of a similar bill that was passed into law in 2004, requiring motorists to adhere to school-zone speed limits 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year whether or not children are present. That meant the person who got off work and drove home at 1 a.m. — while every good third-grader is home sweetly dreaming — would need to slow down in a school zone or be subject to citation.

The problem with that bill back in 2004 was that its only accomplishment was in making people slow down at insignificant times. It had virtually no influence on the safety of children during school hours.

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that a year later, in 2005, the school zone rules were changed again, requiring slower speeds between the more realistic hours of 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. on days when school is in session.

Like the 2004 legislation that did little to improve school zone safety, the 2013 effort to authorize photo radar in school zones across Oregon would do little to improve safety.

Matthews, a former police officer, described this bill as “a bad step for policing.”

What Matthews is saying is that there is no substitute for the presence of a police officer, that moment when the lights show up in the rearview mirror. Those are learning moments that have the potential of causing real change in the habits of motorists.

The relatively sterile experience of opening your mail weeks later to find a citation might make someone upset with the hit on their wallet, but it lacks that heart-thumping experience of being pulled over by a cop, and the embarrassment of endangering children.

We understand that police departments are stretched in many directions, and they are searching for alternatives to traffic patrols. Often, those alternatives rely upon the latest technology.

But like Matthews said, photo radar takes the human element out of the equation. Motorists would find themselves at the mercy of impersonal technology, which is incapable of asking questions, delivering a simple warning or providing drivers with an education at the appropriate moment.

That’s what we all want from our police, not a community where we are under constant surveillance, and at risk of being issued citations based on digital images that scroll across a computer monitor.

Yes, motorists must slow down in school zones. But photo radar is not the answer. The answer is in effective policing.