Future Dimming For Florida's Red Light Cams

Feb 17, 2016

Members of the House Appropriations Committee faced a tough decision Tuesday when a widow and traffic-safety activist begged them not to repeal a red-light camera law named after her former husband.

The House is poised to take up a bill that would end the use of red light cameras in Florida. The widow of a man killed by a red-light runner failed to convince the committee they should be allowed.

In the Legislature, red light cameras blur traditional partisan and geographic lines. But for Melissa Wandall, they’re intensely personal.

In October 2003, she was riding with her husband Mark when a car ran a red light near State Road 70 and Tara Boulevard in Manatee County. Mark was killed. Melissa was nine months pregnant.

Wandall calmly reminded the committee they were about to undo a decade’s worth of her hard work.

“We have completely forgotten the reason why this bill was enacted in the first place.  Mark Wandall. The red light safety cameras have a name. It’s the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act.  And somebody had to die in order to implement this safety act.”

Wandall said she wasn’t asking for sympathy, just their vote.  

“I could not prevent my husband from dying that night. We were nine months pregnant with our daughter. She was born two weeks later and she will never know her father. It is my job to advocate for safer laws.”

In the end, the committee voted 15-12 to repeal the 2010 law. Wandall has several forces working against her.

Republican Frank Artiles of Miami, the bill’s sponsor, is framing the argument in economic terms.  

“The red light cameras are a back-door tax. Four hundred and sixteen cities, 67 counties. The purpose of this bill is to repeal the 2010 bill that allows cities and counties basically tax their constituencies and say its about safety when it reality, the DHSMV report says it’s not about safety, it’s about money.”

Red light cameras are expensive, for the drivers who get a $158-dollar ticket and the communities that install them. Vendors charge nearly $5,000 per month for each red light camera, and many of them lose money.

And critics argue red light cameras aren’t working. According to a study released last year, there were 3,453 crashes at red-light camera intersections before they were installed and 3,959 after.

Paul Henry, a former police officer and activist for the conservative Liberty First Network, says cameras don’t make anyone safer.   

“I’ve worked these crashes. I’ve worked over a thousand crashes here in Florida. I know what causes a red-light violation crash. Two things. Distraction and impairment. There’s not a red light camera on this planet that’s going to stop either one of those.”

But Wandall and others argue red light cameras change driving behavior and save lives. The Florida Police Chiefs support red light cameras. And so does the Florida League of Cities. FLC lobbyist Casey Cook says the crash statistics are misleading.

“Vehicle miles traveled are up 5 percent statewide from 2011 to 2014. That’s important because what you should remember is more drivers on the road equals more crashes.”

Democrat Janet Cruz of Tampa said she pored over crash studies pro and con and couldn’t make up her mind. Then she considered her own track record.

“I personally was a chronic yellow-light runner. I ran yellow lights all the time, I’m telling you. But once red light cameras went into my city in Tampa, it really curtailed or changed my behavior.”

But Democrats on the committee didn’t vote in lockstep.  

Darryl Rosoun noted that Mayor Rick Kriseman unplugged St. Petersburg’s 22 red light cameras after they started losing money. And after that, the silence was deafening.

“There’s yet been any outcry from the citizens to put them back in. So I’m voting up on this bill today until someone shows me that there’s yet been further outcry from the residents and the citizens I represent.”

The bill goes next to the House floor.