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Red light cameras? Yes, with two rules

Your light turns green, and you're about to pull out into the intersection — only to see somebody barreling from the left or right at full speed.

You put on your brakes just in time for him to blow through their red light. You don't know whether to be grateful for not getting killed, or mad at the idiot who almost just killed you.

Red-light abuse is increasingly common and deadly. It seems to be especially bad here in Florida, where many folks learned their driving skills somewhere else — and forgot to pack them.

The result, as my colleague Mike Brassfield reported in Monday's paper, is that a number of communities in Florida are considering red-light cameras to catch violators. Our Legislature is considering a law to permit their broader use, and a $125 fine.

This trend toward using red-light cameras raises three questions:

(1) Are they trustworthy and worth it?

(2) Is there a motive on the part of the company to drive up citations?

(3) Is there a motive on the part of the government to drive up citations?

My answers are (1) yes, (2) yes and (3) yes. So even if it's a good idea overall, any state law or local ordinance that expands the use of red-light cameras ought to deal with these concerns.

A typical system takes an "A shot" of a car the instant before it enters an intersection, showing whether the light has turned red. An instant later, the "B shot" shows the car in the intersection and the status of the light.

It is hard to argue with such good evidence. Lots of drivers who insisted "it was still yellow" realize their guilt once they see it. (If you get a citation, you also get a link to a Web site where you can watch your own video.)

The proposed state law includes exceptions, for example, being in a funeral procession, waiting for traffic to clear to make a left turn, or obeying a traffic-control officer. You can appeal, but if your only argument is, "The camera was wrong," you'll lose.

If somebody else was driving your car, say, your kid, or someone who borrowed your car, then you can get off the hook — if you swear to an affidavit that names the driver.

In the 300-plus U.S. communities using cameras, there are two main methods of paying the vendor: a flat rental rate, or a certain amount for each violation.

But in the pay-per-ticket deal, the more citizens who get cited, the more money that flows to the company. And in either case, the more violations, the more money the government raises.

So here are two modest proposals. Florida's law should require all such contracts to be on a flat-rate basis, and the money collected by the government should not to be treated as general revenue that can be spent on anything.

The company should be capable of calculating its flat rates according to how much work it expects to handle.

As for the government, the money should stay within law enforcement, and any "profit" after expenses should go into a trust fund for further public safety, instead into a general government piggy bank.

Camera systems have driven down violations in some communities and made the streets safer. They are a modern tool that helps law enforcement and frees its resources for better uses. With these safeguards against abuse by either the private or public sectors, they are worth having. Without them — no.

Red light cameras? Yes, with two rules 03/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 3, 2008 7:51pm]
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