BOSTON — TIRED of watching everyone from bus drivers to grandmothers blast through red lights, Boston lawmakers are joining a nationwide push to stop scofflaw driving.
Here, and in at least five other states, law-enforcement officials are testing the latest weapon: traffic-light cameras. Mounted at intersections, these automated eyes click photographs of cars that disregard red lights. Owners of offending vehicles, tracked through their license-plate numbers, receive tickets by mail.
If the Massachusetts legislature approves the permanent use of such devices this summer, Boston will join New York City and Los Angeles as the primary United States test markets for traffic cameras.
The growing use of these devices reflects two forces at work in police precincts across the country. Authorities are under increasing pressure to crack down on crime -- but have fewer resources with which to do so. Thus, many departments are turning to technology to plug the gap.
Proponents of the new cameras note that they are already common in Europe and Australia, where they have reduced red-light infractions by as much as 60 percent. But a trunkful of skeptics remains.
Critics denounce the cameras as an Orwellian invasion of privacy that could lead to reductions in the number of police on patrol. ''I think people are always a little uneasy about things like [cameras] because they seem kind of big-brotherish,'' says Tom Culpepper, of the American Automobile Association (AAA) in Washington. Yet Mr. Culpepper says that recent AAA member surveys indicate that the distaste Americans usually harbor for such devices is subsiding. Now, he says, a narrow majority of drivers ''do not disapprove'' of the cameras.
Spurred by an apparent change of attitude, lawmakers in Florida, California, Arizona, and Massachusetts have authorized pilot programs. And a cadre of states, including New York and Virginia, have legalized their use.
The most extensive use of these devices began 15 months ago in New York City. Transportation officials there, concerned by the nearly 300 pedestrian deaths each year caused by red-light transgressors, put cameras at 20 of the city's most treacherous intersections at a cost of $200,000 each.
So far, officials report, the cameras have been triggered 520,000 times, producing 190,000 citations. Only 5 percent of violators have appealed the $40 fine, and only 1 percent have won.
In Massachusetts, where lawmakers will vote on traffic-light cameras this summer, the transportation department tested cameras at two intersections last year. At one intersection in Springfield, Mass., an average of 83 motorists violated red lights each day. ''There might have been more,'' says state Rep. Paul Caron (D) of Springfield, ''But the camera kept running out of film.''
According to Representative Caron, who sponsored the Massachusetts measure, the experiment demonstrated that bad driving in the Bay State is no longer the province of late-night hot-rodders. Half of the violations occurred between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., he says, and among the offending vehicles were a tractor trailer, a school bus, and a wrecker with car in tow.
Since 30 percent of accidents in Boston occur at intersections, Caron says, cameras could save lives. ''How many times in the last few years have you been sitting at a light and saw some moron go through and thought: 'Where's a cop when you need one?' '' he says. ''With cameras, the cops are always right there.''
BUT traffic cameras haven't always been successful. Police in Pasadena, Calif., declined to adopt them after tests because they determined that the $200,000 cameras were not cost effective and did not work well -- only 3 percent of all photographs taken by test cameras showed legitimate infractions.
Another criticism of cameras is that they rob defendants of due process. In a letter to Newsday, Long Island attorney Don Savatta complained that drivers receive camera-generated tickets without a chance to be heard by a traffic officer. A hearing after the issuance of the tickets is ''inconveniencing, insufficient, and too late,'' he wrote.
Yet John Roberts, executive director of the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union says that as long as there is an appellate process, he doesn't consider traffic cameras a problem. But some police are not warming up to their one-eyed helpers. At a recent hearing in Boston, Ray McGrath of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers argued that cameras were not necessary because ''the No. 1 deterrent to crime is police visibility.''
Culpepper of AAA notes that with revenues from traffic cameras ''you could fund a lot of guys in blue suits.''
Frank Tramantozzi, Boston's commissioner of transportation, argues that his sole motive is to reduce accidents in the city. He does not, however, expect the cameras to be popular.
Last month, intrepid New Yorkers shot them with .45's and blasted them with dynamite. One motorist, armed with a blow torch, sawed down a pole supporting a camera and carted it away.
This kind of reaction, Caron says, is unwarranted. ''Every time you go to the 7-11 to get a cheese dog, you're on camera. The only way this is going to affect you is if you're in the habit of running red lights.''