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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Weighing chump factor vs. red-light camera foes

Jeff Brandes, the woodshed candidate from a couple of election cycles ago, has had it with Florida’s red-light cameras. The GOP state senator from St. Petersburg says they’re sneaky, arbitrary, rife with abuse and don’t deliver on promises of improved safety, and he means to take a two-by-four to the whole program.

OK, not literally, although that would be fun to watch. Brandes could be the 21st-century Buford Pusser. The lawmaker vs. technology. The video would go viral. The selfie — Brandes and his camera-whacker — would break Twitter. Take that, Ellen.

Instead, he’s introduced a bill (SB 144) designed to take them down peaceably. Celebrating its introduction is a coalition consisting, as nearly as I can tell, almost exclusively of libertarians and people who have been hit with the $158 fine. And while I find myself much in accord with small-l libertarianism, I cannot go with them on red-light cameras. So what if local authorities monitor certain problematic intersections with unblinking eyes? Where’s it written government has a responsibility to make it easier for people to get away with breaking the law?

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Modern America overflows with bad or rude or willfully neglectful actors who get away with awful comportment because they know they can. Worse, this conduct unbecoming turns into conduct we’re becoming, a decline I attribute to the chump factor: When we who follow the rules see others fracture them time and again without consequence, we feel like chumps; not wanting to feel like chumps, we start cutting corners, feeding the contagion.

On behalf of beleaguered chumps everywhere, then, I have no trouble admitting this: I like red-light cameras because they nail motorists, hard, who think they can get away with it.

Sadly, this payback appears to be Brandes’ primary problem with the things. Red-light camera companies are “selling their product on safety,” he says, “when it’s really about revenue.” To which Charles Territo, senior vice president for Phoenix-based American Traffic Solutions, says, “There’s a device in every vehicle that can prevent a red-light camera ticket; it’s called a brake pedal.” Well retorted.

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It’s not like there aren’t interesting arguments to make against the application of red-light cameras, but the idea they represent a “back-door tax increase” isn’t one of them. That’s like arguing against buying booze and cigarettes because the state takes a hefty cut. Nonsense.

The statistics, for instance, are problematic. Brandes and other legislators stress the part of a recent report by the state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability that indicates crashes of every variety rose 12 percent after cameras went up.

They have less to say about the report’s companion finding, that fatalities dropped by half in the dozen largest counties using cameras.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says widespread use of red-light cameras could save 200 lives a year. Absolute bunk, says a trio of University of South Florida professors. And so it goes.

Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Transportation waded in last summer, rightly ordering local authorities to lengthen caution-light durations to meet new state standards after published reports of cities and counties shaving fractions of seconds to entrap more motorists.

In the early months since the statewide readjustment took effect, red-light camera tickets have dropped dramatically across the board. This is proof, say critics, that the great majority of those cited previously had been otherwise conscientious drivers caught in no-motorist’s land: too far to beat the yellow; too close to safely stop.

Well. People accommodate change all the time. Whether it’s a new tax, a new menu at your favorite restaurant, a new smartphone operating system, a new strip on the comics page or daylight-savings time, eventually we adjust and carry on as if nothing new was afoot. That’s among the sinister beauties of incrementalism.

Drivers are almost certainly operating upon well-learned habits where yellow lights are concerned, stopping or breezing along as usual. All that’s changed is the duration of their window of opportunity. Let’s see where we are in six months.

Maybe FDOT has, in fact, teased out the magic formula and all our red-light running troubles are behind us. If so, revenues from cameras will sink to the point that they’re no longer worthwhile.

In that case, local lawmakers will resolve to get rid of them on their own, no legislation necessary. It’s called the marketplace, and it works.

Even better than two-by-fours.

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