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Red light cameras, with $105M in revenue last year, remain controversial

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Red-light Cameras (RLC) caught violations by nearly one million Floridians last year, creating quite the revenue stream for municipalities across the state, according to a new report Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

As reported by Lloyd Dunkelberger of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, of 941,000 violations issued to motorists, a majority of them (648,000) pay the $158 penalty, which is then split between local governments ($75) and the state ($83).

Of those 37,000 who challenged the citations, 12,000 wound up paying the fine, dismissing 19,000 violations. As of October, 6,000 were still unresolved.

The remaining 256,000 notices were ignored – uncontested of unpaid during the 60-day period, after which moves to traffic court. There, a driver could contest the citation officially, but they also run the risk of it bumping up to a uniform traffic violation, with both larger fines and consequences.

For the state and approximately 80 local governments using red-light cameras, the Florida Department of Revenue estimates RLCs brought in $105 million in fines during the 2013-14 budget year.

RLC supporters, including city, county and law enforcement, argue that cameras make Florida roads safer; they point to Mark Wandall, the Manatee County man after whom the state law is named. Wandall’s wife pressured lawmakers for years to pass the bill, after a driver running a traffic light killed her husband.

RLC critics (like Senate Transportation Chair Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg) see them as a $105 million source of income, rather than a safety tool. In the opening days of the 2015 Legislative Session, Brandes reintroduced a bill to curb RLCs statewide.

Dunkelberger notes a new report from state highway safety officials, which because of variations in how cities report crash data, could not pinpoint whether cameras actually make Florida roads safer.

Florida DHSMV representative Dave Westbury says the lack of consistent data makes assessing the overall effectiveness of RLC programs difficult.

“The data we have doesn’t allow us to make a conclusion,” Westbury recently told the Senate Transportation Committee.

Brandes, calling RLCs “a backdoor tax increase,” argues that the lack of substantial safety data is unacceptable for a program with $100 million in annual revenue.

“We can’t look our constituents in the eye and tell them we’re making them any safer,” Brandes told reporters. “That deeply, deeply troubles me.”

Brandes is calling for a series of changes to the RLC program as part of a major highway safety bill (SB 1184), endorsed by the Transportation Committee.  Among the revisions are a requirement for detailed and consistent crash data reporting for intersections with cameras. If a local government fails to follow the request, the state could withhold fine revenue.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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