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Red-light cameras are a plus for safety — if you get rid of the deceit

Let's be honest: It's hard to argue against the concept of red-light cameras.

It's a law-and-order issue. A right-and-wrong issue. Mostly it is a public safety issue, and there is virtually nothing you can say that trumps that argument.

You can manipulate and parse the accident data any way you choose, but the fundamental truth is drivers should be more cognizant of blowing through red lights.

So, no, I will not argue against the concept of red-light cameras.

Only the deceit involved.

Red-light cameras are big business. They provide revenue for state and local governments, as well as the private companies that develop and operate the cameras.

And there's nothing wrong with a contractor making a profit, nor a government entity issuing fines.

The problem is they are hiding behind the banner of public safety while stacking the deck to maximize profits.

"I don't support them at all,'' Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. "They were done for all the wrong reasons. I feel pretty confident saying they were done with revenues in mind.''

What are some of the non-public safety issues involved?

• Yellow lights that suspiciously turn red more quickly than the recommended guideline for an intersection. When a poorly timed yellow light was recently fixed in Oldsmar, the number of red-light infractions dropped in half the following month.

• When the Legislature tried to make it easier to contest violations, they made it easier for municipalities to increase revenues. Newly created hearing boards can now charge up to $250 in fees for failed appeals and are theoretically motivated to pay for their own existence by ruling against drivers.

• Contracts that are written in a way that smaller municipalities essentially face a quota to keep the cash flowing to camera vendors. So a rolling right-hand turn that a traffic cop would typically ignore is now routinely turned into a $158 violation.

For Gualtieri, the biggest problem is tickets are being issued in a vacuum. There is no nuance, no extenuating circumstances, no warnings. Just a video and a violation.

"Law enforcement officers use their own judgment and discretion every day, and that has been removed from the equation,'' he said. "There's a difference between an aggressive driver with a history of violations who is taking no responsibility and a mom in a minivan who is horrified that she just mistimed a yellow light.

"My biggest problem is the right-hand turns where there is no question of safety involved. That's just a 'gotcha' mentality, and I detest it, especially in law enforcement.''

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is also convinced revenues are at the heart of red-light cameras and recently filed a bill that would effectively repeal the law.

How likely is that?

Considering there is money to be made and lobbyists to be unleashed, the idea legislators would actually kill red-light cameras seems iffy at best.

And, when you get right down to it, there is still a legitimate argument to be made in the name of public safety.

So maybe what we need is a compromise. A more common-sense approach on right-hand turns. A more citizen-friendly appeals process. A little more scrutiny on vendor contracts. Less emphasis on money and more on safety.

Nothing wrong with knowing when to tap the brakes.