Red Light Cameras At A Crossroads?

Mar 6, 2015

Florida legislation could impose greater state oversight on red light cameras.
Credit Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr

Using cameras to write tickets was greenlit years ago, but now a state lawmaker is calling for those green lights to turn yellow.  As Nick Evans reports, Senator Jeff Brandes is pushing for municipalities to report on existing red light cameras and try alternative measures before setting up more.

So Imagine you’re lost, driving through a new city.  The streets are crowded, you’re not sure exactly what your destination looks like, and then that oh-so-helpful backseat driver lets you know you just passed it. 

No problem—there’s an intersection up ahead and you’ll hang a right, make a block and find some parking.  But just as you get there, it goes yellow, and then red.  Maybe you kind of rolled through on the red, but you’re pretty sure you’re fine.  

Well depending on the city, you may soon have a ticket in your mailbox, complete with a picture of your face behind the wheel.  That is, if a red light camera is installed at the intersection.  Since Florida made it legal to use them, traffic violation detectors—that’s what lawmakers call them—have become very popular.

“You see it’s ranged from 999,000 in the 11/12 fiscal year, a little over 1 million last year, and this year the jurisdictions reported almost 941,000 notices of violation that are being issued,” Dave Westberry says.  He works for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

There’s no doubt the cameras catch more violations than traffic cops.  Compare those more than 900,000 notices in a given year to less than 60,000 tickets written by police that observe an infraction. 

But there’s one problem with red light cameras—it’s not clear they make intersections safer.

“In the front to rear crashes, thirty of the jurisdictions reported an increase, only sixteen a decrease, and three with no change in that,” Westberry continues.

Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) asks, “So this is a decrease over—from when they had previously installed—before they had red light cameras, and now they’ve installed red light cameras and the accidents have actually gone up?”

“Yes, sir,” Westberry answers.

Brandes chairs the Senate Transportation committee which heard the red light camera amendments.  But Westberry’s numbers are far from conclusive.  Although most jurisdictions that reported saw an increase in crashes, most also saw a decrease in injuries.  But the data doesn’t cover all the state’s cameras, and the municipalities can set up their own rules for things like right turns on red.  

So Brandes is proposing two changes to the state’s camera laws:  first, he wants to improve oversight by requiring cities and counties using red light cameras to submit annual reports.  Second, he wants them to show alternative measures have been tried before a red light camera goes up.

“Things like re-striping intersections, things like making signs brighter, things like extending the time of a yellow light,” Brandes says.

But some are critical of his proposals.  Sen. Geraldine Thompson (D-Orlando) says requiring some countermeasures before others could unnecessarily delay safety improvements.

“I’m very concerned about the life and safety of Floridians, and to require jurisdictions to go through all these steps if an intersection has already been identified as a dangerous intersection, I think, is problematic,” Thompson says.

But Sen. Wilton Simpson (R- New Port Richey) points to the problem many who agree with Brandes see in red light cameras.

“We have used red light cameras as cash registers,” Simpson says. “Clearly there’s not definitive proof they save lives—they might actually cause more accidents in some areas.”

At about $160 apiece, tickets from red light cameras have been a boon for localities continually short on cash.  Not surprisingly, lobbyists with the Florida League of Cities and the Association of Counties voiced opposition to the plan.  The measure did pass committee, but with so much money line it seems likely to face stiff resistance as it moves through its final two committee stops.