Florida local governments are trying to find new revenues as tax collections decline, but hopefully Tarpon Springs is not so desperate for cash that it will install red light cameras and issue expensive tickets to residents and visitors just to shore up the city budget.
During a recent City Commission budget session, Mayor Beverley Billiris suggested installing red light cameras to provide new revenue, saying, "There are cities making $15,000 a week off those things." That's the wrong reason to use red light cameras, but many cities are turning to them as a revenue source in hard times - and finding too late that the cameras come with some negatives they had not counted on.
The original premise for the use of red light cameras was to make the roads safer by discouraging motorists from running red lights and reducing intersection collisions. It is a common problem in Pinellas County, where motorists frustrated by traffic congestion take the risk of pushing through intersections well after the lights turn red, endangering themselves and cross traffic. Motorists also have gotten in the habit of rolling through red lights to turn right on red, rather than coming to a full stop as required by law.
No community has enough police officers to constantly monitor even the most hazardous intersections, so red light cameras provide so-called "photographic traffic enforcement." The cameras snap a photo of a vehicle approaching the intersection and another of the car in the intersection, capturing an image of the traffic light and the vehicle license plate. Violators get a citation in the mail and are required to pay whatever amount the local government imposes as a fine. The citations are technically local code violations rather than moving violations.
Officials envision a river of easy money flowing into city coffers, but it isn't that simple. For example, the photographs must be reviewed by law enforcement to confirm that they show clear evidence of violations - a time-consuming process for police. And the local government doesn't get all of the proceeds. The private vendors who typically supply and operate the cameras get a cut.
There are even broader concerns about red light cameras.
When it comes to safety, there is not universal agreement that the cameras reduce collisions. In fact, studies have shown that while right-angle crashes go down, rear-end collisions go up because drivers who are aware of the cameras stop abruptly. If the goal is to reduce intersection crashes, better results are obtained by lengthening the time the light stays yellow as well as building in a slightly longer pause before the cross street's light turns green.
Use of red light cameras also raises questions about fairness. The owner of the car is cited, not the driver, and is presumed guilty because there is photographic evidence, even though the owner may not even be in the car. And because they are presumed guilty, owners often are required to pay a substantial fee for the right to appeal the citation. Furthermore, traffic laws are supposed to be uniform so that drivers are not subject to a different set of laws when going from one jurisdiction to the next. Red light cameras violate that principle. Cities and counties get around that issue by making red light camera violations local code violations rather than traffic law violations, but that doesn't make it fair.
Lawsuits have been filed against local governments because of such issues. Local governments in Florida are among those now fighting lawsuits - and incurring legal fees.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of red light camera use is that local governments may become so dependent on the revenue that they are tempted to toy with traffic light timing to increase the flow of dollars. San Diego and Dallas were accused of shortening the yellow light cycle on traffic lights so more motorists would be caught running red lights. Such behavior belies the claim that the goal is to improve safety.
There is nothing wrong with local governments looking for new sources of revenue to fund public services in these challenging times, but red light cameras are not the answer.