Guest column | Al Mccray

Reason for red light cameras is abundantly green

In following the city of Temple Terrace's lead, Hillsborough County has installed traffic cameras at various locations. Are the first locations chosen based on the high revenue potentials or are they the most dangerous intersections?

As a sales pitch, the Sheriff's Office has a Youtube site showing near-misses at intersections.

In 2009, there were roughly 270,799 traffic tickets issued in Hillsborough County, according to the traffic division of the county clerk's office. Those tickets were written at a rate of 742 per day by uniformed officers. The amount generated was $35,008,391, but the county does not keep all this moola. Some of it is spread around the state to other counties. As a matter of law, surplus funds go elsewhere. That somewhat prevents jurisdictions from going crazy writing tickets.

Now enter the traffic camera system. The county keeps most of the money. A small fee is paid to the camera equipment vendor operators. This violation is governed by county code, rather than state law. Is this a clever way of making more money?

On the surface, it would appear that writing traffic tickets is a booming business in Hillsborough County. It's no wonder why ticketed motorists imagine that police vehicles are mere cash registers on wheels.

Some aspects of the new cameras are very confusing, as far as I'm concerned. On one hand, you won't get points on your driving record. On the other, it's a cash cow of revenue for the county. The fine is $125, plus $25 court cost. Is the point to prove that a particular vehicle ran the light without any regard as to who was behind the wheel? Or is the burden on the registered owner to prove that, "Hey, it was not me driving"?

There are definite problems with the system, as I saw firsthand during a traffic camera magistrate hearing last week. There was a big screen showing what the street camera saw. I observed as five of the names called never showed up. Maybe they'd paid the tickets already. The first person called, an elderly lady, was home in bed sick and blamed her son on the day of the infraction. She was told to fill out forms stating her story. Another man brought in his vehicle's tag plate. The video showed a pickup truck. He owns a compact car. The camera review company misread the tag number. This case was dismissed. Another female had her ticket dismissed. But the county did find one gentleman. His truck was shown running the light late one night. He is appealing the magistrate's order to pay $150.

So far, there have been 18,000 infractions, but only 4,000-plus qualified for citations after a careful review, according to the Sheriff's Office.

I don't know the exact amount of revenue to date from the camera-issued tickets yet, but it is bound to grow as the county's bean counters get intoxicated by this new revenue source.

I am straddling the fence on whether uniformed officers have a ticket quota. When it comes to traffic cameras, I sincerely believe it's definitely for revenue and not safety. We motorists know that. We are not fooled.

Cameras at intersections won't stop the red light runners, it will just generate revenue for the county.

If those traffic cameras are really for safety and not revenue, then why not give 100 percent of the proceeds to the United Way?

The county should just be truthful about traffic cameras and say, "Look, the county is in a financial jam. We need additional revenue."

It really doesn't matter how much of a safety spin they put on the traffic camera issue, it's about the money. It's just that plain and simple.

Al Mccray is a Tampa resident and freelance writer whose work occasionally appears in the Times. He can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

Reason for red light cameras is abundantly green 04/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 1, 2010 5:30am]

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