A new report out of Florida's Legislature may offer the best defense yet for keeping red-light cameras, but it also underscores the problems with how they operate. Lawmakers either need to overhaul the moneymaking scheme for local and state governments or consider repealing it all together.
A report released last week by the Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability found traffic fatalities are down 49 percent at intersections with the devices, but rear-end and angle crashes at those same intersections have increased. Those have long been the two competing claims of red-light cameras supporters, who have said lives will be saved, and opponents, who say the presence of the cameras cause drivers to prematurely stop, increasing accidents even as fines line government coffers. Apparently both were right.
Lawmakers gave municipalities the right to use red-light cameras in 2010, largely under the premise that the devices would improve public safety. Today, local governments in 26 Florida counties deploy cameras at a total of 922 intersections. Red-light runners paid $118.9 million in revenue in fiscal year 2012-13, racking up fines of $158 for each violation, state records show. The fines are divided among the municipality where the violation occurred, which pockets $75, and Florida's general revenue fund, which takes in $70. The remaining money is split between two medical funds.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who in the past has tried to standardize the red-light program, is now leading the charge to repeal it, saying it is applied too inconsistently. In some places, for example, drivers get ticketed for failing to make a complete stop before a right turn. The same act carries no fine in other municipalities.
Lawmakers need to find a way to keep what works and fix what falls short. They should start by making sure the types of violations fined don't differ among municipalities. They also should set a standard time for the length of yellow traffic lights. Studies have shown that longer yellow lights protect drivers from accidents. And the public's trust would be strengthened if money raised from fines were earmarked for transportation-related issues, not general use. Without those changes, legislators should make a U-turn and repeal the law.