In an era of looming deficits, it is tempting for St. Petersburg and Tampa to rush to install red light cameras at dangerous intersections to improve traffic safety and raise money. But both cities should hit the pause button as the Florida Legislature considers long overdue legislation to govern the use of such devices. The state must ensure red light cameras are not just money machines for cash-strapped governments but also a fair way to ticket car owners and improve traffic safety.
The Legislature's action comes a month after Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Jerald Bagley ruled that the city of Aventura overstepped state law when it used a camera to fine red light runners. He said a police officer needed to be present, a ruling that has left dozens of local governments reviewing policies that have generated millions in fines in recent years at little cost.
Red light cameras snap a photograph of an intersection, capturing an image of a traffic light and a vehicle's license plate. Later, officials determine whether the evidence warrants a ticket and mail the ticket to the car's owner. Brooksville, Kenneth City, Port Richey, Temple Terrace and Hillsborough County already use the cameras.
St. Petersburg and Tampa are also poised to adopt the technology, with Tampa set to review bids from private vendors in coming weeks. There could be some benefit to acting before the Legislature does because cameras already in use might be exempt from the new law (House bill) or enjoy a yearlong grace period to comply (Senate bills). But that is intellectually dishonest and ignores the need to standardize camera operation statewide and protect drivers' rights.
Both chambers have bills this session — SB 294, SB 2166 and HB 325 — that would establish the Department of Transportation as regulator of all camera systems and training for ticket writers. The bills would also prohibit anyone connected with operating the red light cameras from being compensated on a per-ticket basis.
The bills would establish a fine statewide for running a red light, about $155, and detail exactly how the money would be divided between state and local governments. Car owners would be presumed responsible for the fine. However, owners, once notified by mail, could challenge the fine on the grounds of extenuating circumstances — such as the need to move out of the way of an emergency vehicle — or by providing the name and address of the individual who was actually driving the car at the time.
Such caveats are more than necessary when government is relying on technology and not an eyewitness account from a police officer to determine when a law has been broken. Lawmakers are calling the bills the "Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act," for a 30-year-old man killed by a red light runner in Bradenton. That would be appropriate, too. Preventing accidents like the one that killed Wandall are what local officials should have in mind by embracing this technology — not just filling local coffers.