BILLINGS — If you run a red light in Montana, you won’t get a citation unless an officer sees you. That’s because red light traffic cameras have been outlawed statewide since 2009, when the state Legislature passed House Bill 531.
Now, that camera conversation is being reignited following the death of a beloved Montana teacher. Forty-year-old Billings native, Kelly Fulton, was hit and killed in October, 2022, while riding his bike to school, where he worked as a math teacher at Bozeman High School.
“His little boys ask every day why their dad had to die, and it's impossible for a parent and a family member and their friends to explain to them why they don’t have their dad anymore,” says Anna Sackmann, Kelly Fulton’s sister.
Fulton usually made the ride to school with his boys, ages 2 and 5, pulling them in a bike trailer behind him. Luckily, his final trip was solo.
“The night before he was hit, they had been baking banana muffins, one of their favorite things to make together for the little boys to take into their pre-school. That next morning, they decided their mom, Elizabeth, would drive them to school so they could take their muffins,” says Sackmann.
Muffins may have saved two lives this time, but the family hopes to save more by shedding light on state legislation that bans the use of red-light cameras in Montana. It's technology they believe would deter drivers from running red lights.
The next step is political: overturning House Bill 531 or giving local control back to the cities. That's something Billings-based group STRUT, or Safer Through Responsible use of Technology, is aiming to do.
“People are getting away with traffic violations, and that creates a climate and mindset where like, ya, heck with the laws. I don’t need to pay attention to it,” says Billings City Council Member Danny Choriki.
The Montana League of Cities and Towns supports local control, issuing this statement:
"As the state-wide association for all cities and towns in Montana, our main goal is to support and advocate for local decision-making. The League believes that cities and towns are strongest when elected local leaders are able to work with their community members to enact policies that reflect local values. We support the citizens of Billings and their local elected leaders in finding solutions to pedestrian safety that best serve Billings. We recognize that every Montana community is different with its own history, economy, and needs so what may work for one community may not work for another. Local governments should have the autonomy to make local decisions.
“It doesn’t make sense. What works for Chester, Montana is not going to work for Billings,” says Choriki.
Montana is one of more than a dozen states that have banned or restricted red-light cameras. In most cases, privacy advocates have argued that the cameras violate drivers' rights, while other maintain that enforcing violations after the fact through the use of a camera is problematic.
In Billings, police issued 268 red light citations in 2022 and 169 warnings, and they say there are far more people breaking the red-light law.
"We are all aware there are many more violations of this nature that take place. These are just the ones that caused a crash, or an officer observed and was able to take action on," Lt. Matthew Lennick said.
For now, it’s wait and see, on whether a lawmaker will sponsor a bill related to the issue, but Kelly Fulton’s family is hopeful.
"We miss him so much,” says his sister Anna.