Brent Batten: Red light cameras keep company in the black

BRENT BATTEN

The National Coalition for Safer Roads is trying to put a stop to legislation that would end the use of cameras for red-light enforcement in Florida.

It’s national, it’s a coalition and it’s for safer roads. What’s not to like?

But like many of the lobbying groups that operate in Tallahassee, the NCSR is funded by people with a lot to gain or lose financially depending on what happens to the bills they target.

The NCSR came into being less than a month ago. It’s mission is, “to advocate for the use of red-light safety cameras in cities and communities across the country.”

“NCSR is a nonprofit advocacy organization that will bring together industry, community leaders and concerned citizens in support of red-light safety technology,” the groups web site declares.

In announcing its formation, the group reveals its financial underpinnings come from American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona company that partners with Collier County and other communities to provide and maintain red-light cameras in exchange for a share of the fines they generate.

“NCSR was established primarily through the support of American Traffic Solutions, but NCSR anticipates receiving contributions from other organizations interested in promoting public safety awareness,” the group’s initial press release states.

In its brief lifespan, it has already been active in Missouri and Arizona, where legislative efforts to ban the cameras are under way.

Its focus in Florida is Senate Bill 672, which is scheduled for a hearing today with the Senate Transportation Committee. If passed, it would repeal the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act passed a year ago that took red-light cameras out of the hands of local jurisdictions and placed them under state oversight.

Further, it would prevent local governments from returning to the days before the Wandall Act when they could operate red-light cameras on local roads.

Not surprisingly, the industry-supported NCSR says it is a bad idea.

“This repeal poses several safety issues and concerns for communities across the state. Intersection safety cameras save lives,” NCSR claims in an advisory about the legislative hearings. To bolster the claim, the group points to a February report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety purporting to show red-light cameras saved 159 lives between 2004 and 2008 in 14 of the largest U.S. cities.

It also cites a second report from the National Safety Council showing fatalities at intersections with traffic lights have been dropping as well, although National Safety Council report doesn’t cite red-light cameras as a specific cause of the decline.

When passed, the Wandall Act did several things to the hodgepodge of red-light camera programs operating independently throughout the state.

It made uniform the fine, setting it at $158 per violation. It directed the lion’s share of that money, $83, to the state, which was getting nothing before and it permitted cameras to be set up in state rights-of-way, opening up new intersections for cameras. It also made it more difficult to ticket a driver for turning right on red, a common infraction that accounted for most of the tickets written in Collier County. As a result, Collier County has stopped sending out tickets for right-on-red violations spotted by cameras.

Even without those tickets, Collier County’s red-light camera program is a big money maker for ATS.

Under its agreement with the county, ATS pays the county $8,250 a month to operate cameras at more than a dozen intersections. The county’s $75 cut of each ticket goes entirely to ATS. It takes 110 paid citations a month for the company to break even. In January of this year, 758 tickets were generated, down from 2,951 in January of 2010, but still enough to net ATS revenue of $48,600 after the monthly fee to the county, assuming all the violators pay. In February 2011, 899 tickets could bring ATS $59,175 over and above the monthly fee.

The opposition to Senate Bill 672 is itself, encountering opposition. The Libertarian Party of Florida is supporting the bill, putting out a call for action and citing studies as well. “Researchers from the University of South Florida agree with Libertarians after performing an intensive study into the effects of red light cameras and have concluded that (cameras), ‘increase crashes and injuries as drivers attempt to abruptly stop at camera intersections,”’ the party said in a statement in advance of today’s hearing.

Last year, red-light cameras generated more than $8 million for the state, even though the Wandall Act didn’t take effect until midway through the year. In a tight budget year and with monied lobbyists pushing to keep the cameras in place, what are the odds legislators will willingly part with that revenue?

Connect with Brent Batten at bebatten@naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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