If the Legislature loosens state law this session, you'll soon see more red-light cameras cropping up at key intersections around the state. Hillsborough County is already on track to install them.
Localities in Florida want the cameras because they are advertised to reduce the deadly collisions that result from drivers ignoring red lights. But the evidence is not uniform on this point, and there is a danger that the devices soon become seen as cash cows, trumping public safety. That's why we urge caution going forward.
Obviously, police can't be at every intersection to catch those drivers who endanger public safety by running red lights. Today's technology offers sophisticated photo enforcement as a reasonable substitute. The camera captures the car as it is about to enter an intersection along with the status of the traffic light. And another shot a split second later shows the car in the intersection and what the traffic light reads.
State law currently requires that an officer observe the commission of a traffic infraction before a citation can be issued. But lawmakers are considering removing these barriers. If new legislation is adopted, a citation of $125 would be issued by mail to the registered owner of a vehicle caught running a red light. The infraction would result in a fine only and not added points on a license.
Local officials are typically enthusiastic over these systems, but the experience of some of the hundreds of cities employing them should give them pause.
On the issue of enhancing safety, the results are mixed. One 2005 study by the Federal Highway Administration found that red-light cameras resulted in a 25 percent reduction in right-angle intersection collisions. But the same study indicated a 15 percent increase in rear-end collisions resulting from cars stopping short to avoid a ticket.
A study funded by the U.S. Transportation Department concluded that red-light cameras do not reduce accidents. "In many ways," the study said, "the evidence points toward the installation of RLCs as a detriment to safety."
Most worrisome is that the new revenue generated by the cameras might become irresistible. It has been reported that San Diego actually shortened the timing of yellow lights in order to increase the fines issued. And a columnist for Car and Driver noted that in Dallas seven in 10 of its highest grossing red-light cameras were situated in intersections with shorter yellow lights than the minimum recommended by the state DOT.
The way to avoid this potential for abuse is to eliminate any perverse incentives. The camera companies should be paid a flat fee, not a percentage of every citation, and the localities that employ the cameras should not be able to use profits as general revenue.
The grass-roots National Motorists Association opposes the use of photo enforcement for a plethora of reasons, among them that the cameras end up discouraging the synchronization of traffic lights, since localities are looking to increase ticket volume. The NMA suggests that intersection collisions can be sharply reduced without cameras through sound traffic engineering, such as lengthening yellow light duration slightly and ensuring adequate all-red clearance intervals.
There are enough reasonable question marks surrounding the deployment of these cameras to recommend a go-slow approach. Localities can easily become addicted to the revenue, which could push public safety considerations aside. Then motorists would have the worst of all worlds.