TALLAHASSEE — Florida intersections could soon see a new proliferation of red light cameras if Gov. Charlie Crist signs a traffic safety bill approved by the Senate Tuesday.
The bill would create a statewide law allowing local governments to use the cameras and give drivers cause to think twice before coasting through a red light, lawmakers said.
"The main reason for this bill is to make roadways safe and to protect the lives of our men, women and children in the state of Florida," said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, who sponsored the bill in the Senate.
The widely backed bill is among a knot of bills aimed at reducing traffic crashes that have been slated for debate in the closing days of the legislative session.
Florida ranked third in traffic fatalities after California and Texas, in 2008 and 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Many of the bills would result in new government fees, an enticing prospect for a state mired in budget reductions.
So far, the red light legislation (HB 325) is the only measure to pass both the Senate and the House, raising doubts that there is enough time left in the remaining three days of the session to advance the other bills.
The red light bill passed handily in both legislative chambers with the support of local governments who applauded the measure as an overdue legal protection against complaints that the monitoring devices encroach on individual rights.
It lets local governments install cameras at intersections and charges a $158 civil fine to motorists who run a red light. The measure makes it a civil infraction that doesn't factor into auto insurance rates.
A Miami-Dade judge in February deemed the city of Aventura's red light cameras illegal, casting doubt on similar efforts in 50 other Florida localities.
A state law would eliminate those concerns, said Pembroke Pines Mayor Frank Ortis, who added a red light camera to a bustling intersection in his South Florida city last year.
"People were just running lights flagrantly," he said.
Some citizens have since questioned the reach of the cameras, Ortis said. But if the red light bill becomes state law, he plans to add at least three more cameras.
"I want to save lives," he said.
Drivers could also face changes stemming from a proposed law targeting road rage.
In a 30-6 vote, the Senate passed a bill (SB 482) Tuesday that would require drivers in the left lane of a multilane highway to move out of the way of faster-moving traffic. The House is poised to pass it this week.
"Road rage is one of the largest causes of traffic accidents, and unfortunately when they happen at 80 miles per hour, people die," said Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton, the bill's sponsor.
Other proposed driving reforms haven't fared as well.
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, urged the Senate to pass a bill (SB 448) Tuesday to ban texting while driving and send a message to the House, where Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, chairwoman of the House Finance and Tax Council, refuses to advance it because it doesn't address all driving distractions.
"This bill is not dead in the Florida Senate," said Detert. "I would ask you to send the folks down the hall a message."
It passed, 34-4.
Still, Bogdanoff said this would not change her mind.
Distractions caused by mobile devices contribute to 6,000 deaths each year on America's highways, according to the U.S. Transportation Department. More than 135 billion text messages were sent or received in a one-month period in the United States, 80 percent more than in 2008, the department found.
Under the bill, first-time violators could be fined $30 plus court costs. A second offense within five years would be a moving violation, costing the texting driver $60 plus court costs.
"OMG," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, using texting shorthand to express her praise for the measure. "BTW, LOL."