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Spying or protecting? Red light cameras pose ethical question for Legislature

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office installed a traffic camera at the crash-prone Bell Shoals Road-Bloomingdale Avenue intersection in December 2009. A sheriff’s officer said then, if you don’t want to be photographed, “Don’t run the red light.”

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times (2009)

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office installed a traffic camera at the crash-prone Bell Shoals Road-Bloomingdale Avenue intersection in December 2009. A sheriff’s officer said then, if you don’t want to be photographed, “Don’t run the red light.”

TALLAHASSEE — House Republican lawmakers find themselves at a philosophical intersection when it comes to red light cameras.

Do the devices promote public safety and save lives? Or do they represent an Orwellian intrusion into private life?

It's a recurring topic but particularly bewildering this year as two antithetical bills — one to allow red light cameras and one to ban them — are poised to make it to the House floor.

And to make it even more difficult: both measures are sponsored by top GOP lawmakers with clout.

"It's definitely rare for two bills to take two different philosophical viewpoints to move this far along in the process," said Rep. Rob Schenck, a committee chairman from Spring Hill.

The camera's questionable legality is another factor pressing the issue to the forefront. A Miami-Dade judge in February declared Aventura's red light cameras illegal, leaving the status of similar efforts in 50 other Florida localities in doubt.

Schenck's bill (HB 1235) largely mirrors the judge's ruling by barring local governments from enforcing traffic laws with cameras and reserving the authority to the state. But for him, the motivation is more about conservative ideology.

"I don't believe that government or Big Brother should be recording our every move," he said. "I don't believe that they necessarily have the public safety measure they are purported to have. And quite frankly, this is all about raising revenue for government."

Those arguments are part of the rationale behind Speaker Pro Tem Ron Reagan's legislation (HB325) to create a statewide law. Approved by a House and Senate panels Wednesday, it levels a $150 civil fine for motorists caught on camera running a red light. The infraction would not put points on a driving records and wouldn't factor into auto insurance rates, much in the same fashion as a parking ticket.

"I believe that these cameras will retrain people's brains . . . and statistics have proven just that," said Melissa Wandall, who told lawmakers how she was eight months pregnant with the her first child when her husband, Mark Wandall, died in a wreck with a red light runner in Bradenton.

State figures show that wrecks where a driver violated traffic signals killed 76 people and injured another 5,600 in 2008.

But whether the cameras improve driving behavior is a disputed science. A 15-year-old federal study found that they reduced wrecks, but also increased rear-end collisions. A more recent study from North Carolina A&T University reached similarly dubious conclusions.

The state coffers would get half the fine, $75, with local authorities keeping $50 and the remaining $25 sent to the state's 21 hospital trauma centers.

Under current provisions, where local governments split the revenues with the camera vendor, the state gets nothing.

The financial aspect is a major area of concern with critics arguing it's a fundraising mechanism for government, or a back-door tax. A legislative analysis suggests the state is likely to get more than $100 million per year in new revenue through the bill. Local governments are likely to get an equally steep amount of money.

Where the money goes is a point of contention that is expected to change as the heavily lobbied bill matures. A previous version earmarked a portion of the fine money for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, an entity represented by powerful lobbyist Ron Book, and to other specialized medical centers. But it was stripped at the last minute.

Reagan, of Bradenton, dismisses the idea that a driver should expect privacy on a public road. He also said he "never ignored that revenue was a part of the situation."

For a number of lawmakers the deal appeared too sweet for them to object on philosophical grounds. Only state Rep. William Snyder, a Stuart Republican and a former sheriff's deputy, voted against the measure at the committee hearing.

"I think that government has a voracious appetite for funding and control over people's lives," he said afterward. "This trend will not stop. . . . What will we monitor next?"

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Spying or protecting? Red light cameras pose ethical question for Legislature 04/14/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 11:31pm]
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