1. Opinion

Editorial: Clear up red-light confusion

Leave it to the Florida Legislature to cause new problems while fixing old ones. Legislation sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, resolved a series of issues plaguing red-light camera use. But it also created a still-unscripted appeals process that could prove unfair to motorists and hit them harder in the wallet.

The Legislature needed to correct its prior mistakes. Among the problems with the state's law: A 30-day limit for paying a lower red-light camera fine of $158 was so short that by the time rental car customers received notice of violation they were automatically required to pay $264.

Brandes' proposal, added to HB 7125, addresses this and other complaints raised by Ken Burke, Pinellas County clerk of the Circuit Court. He'd complained his office spent a disproportionate amount of time handling angry calls about camera tickets compared with those issued by officers on roadways. Brandi Williams, the director of the Hillsborough clerk's traffic department, agreed that the tens of thousands of camera tickets from Hillsborough County and the cities of Tampa and Temple Terrace "dramatically increased our workload."

The bill alleviates the rental car problem by extending the initial deadline to pay the $158 fine to 60 days. It also removes ambiguity for drivers turning right on a red light. Under the bill, as long as the car comes to a stop before the right turn, even if it is after the line, no ticket can be issued. This is another positive change.

But if the bill is signed by Gov. Rick Scott — it is part of a 226-page transportation bill — it will go into effect in July, which gives local governments little time to comply with the biggest change, establishing an administrative appeal process. Every locality with red-light cameras would need one, and that may mean hiring local hearing officers and creating a new bureaucracy.

The problem for people challenging a camera ticket is that rather than their case being heard by an impartial judge, as it is now, it may go before someone who works for the county or city that expects to bring in revenues from tickets. And the bill allows jurisdictions to charge as much as $250 in costs on top of the $158 notice of violation if the appeal fails. Motorists looking to contest their ticket face up to $408 in charges. People could still choose to go to court instead of taking the administrative route, and they could appeal any denial by a hearing officer to a court, but those options may not be clear and could add to the cost.

This experiment with red-light cameras — 77 local jurisdictions in the state had them as of December — has added unanticipated costs to other parts of government even as the safety record is mixed. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn claims the cameras have made busy intersections safer, and some state statistics back that up, but in St. Petersburg rear-end wrecks at intersections with red-light cameras jumped 44 percent between November 2011 and October 2012.

Counties and cities claim the cameras are about safety and not the hundreds of thousands of dollars flowing into their coffers. But the money is clearly playing a role in the cameras' proliferation. Time will tell if localities try to gouge people challenging their tickets with the maximum $250 in costs as well.