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Cameras to catch red-light runners may get statewide push

TALLAHASSEE — As more Florida cities and counties focus surveillance cameras on intersections, state legislators are closer than ever to green-lighting the devices to ticket people by remote control.

Right now, state law prohibits local governments from installing the cameras on state-owned property to snare red-light runners.

But about 30 cities and counties have steered around the ban by placing the cameras on local roads or on private property and by issuing code-enforcement-style violations instead of traffic fines.

Opponents raise the specter of "Big Brother" and question whether the cameras are the best way to reduce crashes. But with governments searching for new cash sources and with red-light cameras rolling in a growing number of cities, supporters say it's time to create uniform surveillance rules.

"It's a pressing issue because cities are putting up more and more of these cameras without the oversight and the control and the consumer protections," said Sen. Thad Altman, a Melbourne Republican, who is sponsoring the proposal with Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton. "People are realizing we're going to get these cameras whether we like it or not, so we need to put some restrictions on them."

The House Economic Development & Community Affairs Policy Council endorsed the idea Tuesday. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee takes it up today.

More than 110 municipalities in 20 states have cameras focused on red light runners.

In the Tampa Bay area, Port Richey became the third city in the state to approve traffic cameras. Brooksville and Hillsborough County signed off on the devices last year.

The red-light camera systems cost at least $50,000 per intersection and are similar to those used to catch toll booth scofflaws.

The cameras snap two pictures: One shows the vehicle approaching the light, and the second captures a shot of the license plate if the vehicle enters the intersection while the light is red.

A law enforcement officer then reviews the images and — if a violation occurred — sends a ticket to the registered owner.

The proposal by Altman and Reagan outlines statewide specifications for the camera systems and gives cities and counties permission to install the cameras on state-owned property. It also creates a uniform fine of $150, which would be treated more like a parking ticket or toll booth violation than a traffic ticket. There would no points on a violator's driver's license.

If the measure passes, cities that have already approved the cameras would be given one year to update their systems to conform with the law.

The bill also outlines how the fines are distributed and sets aside one-fifth of the money for state trauma centers, hospitals and nursing homes that have residents with brain and spinal cord injuries.

However, bill sponsors say the measure isn't meant to be a money grab.

"I hope cities, counties and trauma centers never get any money," Reagan said at a committee hearing earlier this session. "My goal is to prevent people from running red lights."

Breanne Gilpatrick can be reached at bgilpatrick@miamiherald.com.

Cameras to catch red-light runners may get statewide push 04/14/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 11:16pm]
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