Blog: Red light repeal OK’d by House, barely

May 3, 2011

The following article was published in the Palm Beach Post on May 2, 2011:

Red light repeal Ok’d by House, barely

By John Kennedy

The closest vote of the 2011 session ended Monday with the House approving a repeal of red-light cameras OK’d for cities only a year ago.

House sponsor of the measure, Rep. Richard Corcoran, RNew Port Richey, is a first-year lawmaker already selected as a future House Speaker. But he needed whatever political muscle he could exert in getting his repeal proposal approved on a 59-57 vote.

“Pretend you are a jury and you’re going to base your decision on empirical evidence,” Corcoran told the House. “Are intersections safer or less safe” because of the cameras?

Corcoran said data suggesting a decline in accidents at intersections with cameras is largely driven by “companies that are making millions of dollars off these cameras.”

Critics said the cameras violate the constitutional rights of motorists. They also accused city officials of expanding camera-use chiefly to pad municipal treasuries under the guise of traffic safety. Dozens of Florida cities, including several in Palm Beach County, are using the cameras since lawmakers approved their installation last year.

Florida House Republicans typically vote in lockstep on most issues, as do Democrats. But the battle over the future of cameras fragmented the usual alliances.

“I’ve got a red light in front of my funeral home,” said Rep. Ken Roberson, R-Port Charlotte, a funderal director. “And you can stand outside and watch people run red lights all day…These cameras modify behavior over time and will save lives.”

The Senate, though, has shown little interest in the repeal. And Monday’s floor fight and dramatic vote is considered likely the last time the repeal effort will surface this session.

Ticket violators face $158 fines. And the effort to repeal the cameras — approved last year after five years of lobbying by supporters and camera companies — has been led by Corcoran and fellow freshman Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami.

With cameras, “we start becoming a nanny state,” said Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, like Corcoran, a rising House leader. “I used that with my daughter this weekend and she said, ‘is that a TV show?’ I said, ‘No, it’s become reality.’” 

But Rules Chairman Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, gave a vigorous defense of the cameras, disputing critics claims that they are causing an increase in accidents — particularly rear-end collisions.

“We’re willing to call it ‘big brother,’” Aubuchon said, adding, “But if your child or grandchile is killed at an intersection because somebody barrels through an intersection because the red light camera is gone, is your vote worth it?

In Palm Beach County, cities with cameras in place at a handful of busy intersections include West Palm Beach, Palm Springs, Juno Beach and Boynton Beach. Royal Palm Beach and Haverhill dropped cameras after the new law went into place, making the program less lucrative to municipalities.

But cities also have been struggling with the new cameras. For some, the cameras have not drawn the revenue levels expected through fine collections, with many motorists successfully challenging citations in court.

Within months of West Palm Beach installing cameras last year, motorists began fighting back in court appearances.

Tickets were thrown out after some people used camera images to dispute their citations, while others presented evidence that they couldn’t have been behind the wheel. Attorneys hired by some drivers accused of red-light running also used technical arguments to have their tickets dismissed.

West Palm Beach officials were forced to respond by beefing-up legal staff representing the city at red-light ticket cases in civil court.

The $158 fine levied on those who failed to stop at a traffic signal is divided between cities with the cameras and the state. Seventy-five dollars is retained by local governments, and $83 goes to the state.

The state’s share is further divided, with $70 going into general revenue; $10 to the Florida Health Department; and $3 to the Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund.

City collections statewide were not immediately available. But according to analysts, $8.4 million has gone to the state from last July through February as its share of tickets paid.

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