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Friday, Aug 17, 2018
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Editorial: Don’t crash red-light cameras

Pinellas Sen. Jeff Brandes, a longtime foe of red-light cameras who is sponsoring legislation this session to ban them, says, “Red-light cameras don’t offer us the human side of law enforcement. It is completely and utterly machine driven ...”

That is a curious objection by the Legislature’s champion of self-driving cars, who wants to see our highways turned over to machine-controlled vehicles. Yet he doesn’t want to use modern technology to help law enforcement combat a deadly traffic violation.

The proposed ban makes no sense.

After all, no one in the Legislature is proposing cameras and machines not be used to collect toll road fines and parking fees. Or cameras not be used to detect trouble on roads or public areas.

It is impossible for police officers to patrol every dangerous intersection. Red-light cameras save lives by deterring a dangerous practice — without extra costs to taxpayers. Violators foot the bill.

The real concern of Brandes and his allies is that they believe local governments are using red-light cameras as a “backdoor tax increase,” which is nonsense. It is a fine that applies only to drivers who violate the law.

Communities have had different experiences with red-light cameras, with most finding they discourage the flagrant running of red lights.

Sometimes, the number of crashes may increase, but usually from rear-end collisions when a motorist slams on brakes to avoid running the light. But as Col. Greg Brown of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office points out, such wrecks are far less dangerous than the often-fatal broadside collisions that occur when someone runs a light.

Hillsborough County experienced a major decline in red-light crashes when it adopted the cameras in 2008. And even as the state’s crash rate increases along with traffic, red-light camera intersections experience a much slower rate of increase.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is a proponent of the cameras. “I absolutely think they save lives and change behaviors,” he says. He notes the latest figures show that many drivers still run lights, demonstrating the cameras are needed.

As the Tribune’s Christopher O’Donnell reports, red-light camera tickets initially went down, but went up last year, indicating many drivers are running lights and the cameras are still needed.

Collisions have gone up at red-light camera intersections in Tampa, along with traffic. But as with the county, intersections without the cameras experience much greater increases in collisions.

Officials say less than 10 percent of those who received a citation re-offend, an indication the cameras do change behavior — at least of those who are cited.

Some Tampa City Council members have their doubts about the cameras and are likely to debate the matter soon, which is appropriate. The use of the lights should be a local decision.

There have been some legal objections to the cameras, particularly if vendors, rather than law enforcement officials, make the call on whether a violation has occurred. But that is a matter for the courts to sort out, and easy enough to address by requiring officers to decide what is a violation, as the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office and Tampa Police Department do.

The state in 2010 standardized red-light rules with the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act, which, as the Tribune’s Jeff Schweers reports, put red-light camera fines at $158. Of that, $75 goes to the local government to split with the camera company, and $83 goes to the state Department of Revenue. The offense carries no points on the violator’s license.

It’s useful for lawmakers to remember that Wandall was a 30-year-old Bradenton resident who was killed by a red-light runner just two weeks before the birth of his first child, a daughter. The purpose of the cameras is to prevent such tragedies.

But proponents of the ban seem more interested in hurting local governments than punishing reckless drivers.

Local governments should be free to use the most efficient methods possible to protect the public’s safety without the busybody Big Brothers in the Legislature getting in the way.

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