Lawmakers take a look at red-light traffic cameras

Snapshot: Red-light cams, one year later

More cameras coming as thousands are cited, ...

— Proponents say red-light traffic cameras save lives. Opponents call the devices Orwellian threats to freedom. The Florida Legislature is trying to map a route through the controversy.

Two bills (HB 325, SB 2166) would establish statewide guidelines for the use of red-light cameras, providing statutory cover for dozens of municipalities that already have installed them and, under questionable legal authority, are collecting fines from violators.

Both bills are named for Mark Wandall, instantly killed near Bradenton by a red-light runner in October 2003. He was 30. His wife, Melissa, was eight months pregnant with their first child.

When the light turns green, prudent drivers in Florida already hesitate and look both ways before proceeding. But Melissa Wandall believes all motorists need an additional margin of safety, so she began lobbying for the bills.

"There's no more common sense on our highways," she said. "We no longer have the right to expect to be safe at our intersections because so many people are violating the law."

How many? A lot.

According to state legislative analysts, a two-month study at a single intersection in Palm Beach County found that 50 cars ran through red lights during an average day — and it often wasn't a close call. Though many violations were matters of split seconds, 20 percent of those cars entered the intersection at least two seconds after the light changed.

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported that 76 people were killed and 5,607 people were injured in accidents caused in 2008 by drivers disregarding traffic signals.

Nationally, red light running kills about 750 people each year and injures 260,000, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"I needed to do something with what I had left," Wandall said. "These cameras are so important. They really save lives."

More than 400 communities around the country are using red-light traffic cameras, according to the National Conference of Legislatures. More than 50 municipalities in Florida have installed the devices, but state law does not appear to authorize citations and fines based on what experts call "automated enforcement" of such devices.

The House bill is sponsored by Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Sarasota, who lives about a mile from the site of the collision that killed Mark Wandall. Under the bill and a similar Senate measure, citations could be sent by mail and fines of about $155 could be assessed against the owners of vehicles that run red lights.

"There's no question whatsoever that these cameras cut fatalities by 60 to 70 percent," Reagan said. "But, more importantly, they make people more conscious, more aware, that they simply must stop on the red light."

Opponents say the research is not as definitive as Reagan and others assert.

Legislative analysts found that cameras reduce red light violations by at least 40 percent and crashes that result in injuries by at least 25 percent, but rear-end crashes tend to increase.

"Everyone just slams on their brakes when they get to a yellow light, so you get more rear-end crashes," said Bret Lusskin, a Hallandale Beach attorney who specializes in defending people accused of driving under the influence and other traffic offenses.

Moreover, said Lusskin and some civil liberties advocates, the cameras pose threats to privacy and freedom.

"They are horribly un-American," Lusskin said. "The idea of having a government surveillance camera on every street corner is as Orwellian as you get. If we don't stop them, they will be everywhere."

Based on that view, a bill has been filed in the House to outlaw red-light cameras. The constitutionality of the cameras has never been successfully challenged, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but at least eight states have banned them.

Reagan is a conservative Republican with a strong admiration for personal freedom and limited government, but he doesn't buy the constitutional argument.

Enforcement cameras already are in use at tollbooths on Florida's Turnpike and elsewhere, he said, and other suggested remedies — such as lengthening the duration of yellow caution lights — have demonstrated no lasting effect.

"There is no expectation of privacy when you're in a vehicle on a public road," Reagan said. "Those arguments are moot."

Some of the Florida communities that have placed cameras at intersections use them just to collect data, but many are issuing citations and imposing fines on the owners of vehicles. Those fines can represent significant sources of revenue, with even small cities collecting more than $1 million a year.

The problem: Current state law does not appear to authorize that.

In 1997 and again in 2005, Florida's attorney generals ruled that the cameras could be used to gather research or for other purposes. But they said state law does not permit citations or fines based on the photos because the statute requires that an officer actually observes a traffic infraction before a ticket can be issued.

In February, Lusskin won a red-light camera case in Aventura, north of Miami, after arguing that fines imposed on violators were illegal. The case was stayed pending appeal, but Lusskin made his point.

"Cities that have enacted these programs are in flagrant disregard of state law and they have full knowledge that they are circumventing state law," Lusskin said.

The Mark Wandall Traffic Safety bills seek to remedy that.

The House and Senate versions differ slightly, but both impose fines on the owners of offending vehicle — because drivers rarely can be identified in the photos. That is another source of controversy.

"The driver could borrow your car and run 50 laps around the same light and you're stuck with the tickets," Lusskin said.

No points are assessed to anyone's driver license. Under the House version, notification signs must be posted wherever cameras are deployed and public awareness campaigns must be conducted.

"Even if someone wants to run a red light every day, they still deserve to have signs go up warning them about the cameras," Wandall said.

The driver of the car that killed her husband was a repeat offender, Wandall said, but was punished with only a $500 fine and community service.

Wandall's daughter, born two weeks after the accident, is now 6 years old.

"These cameras retrain your brain," Wandall said. "They are an educational tool.

"We are a multitasking society and we just don't know how to slow down anymore," she said. "The cameras are really important."

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