Support for Red-Light Cameras May Be Dimming
Mar 17, 2013
The following article was published in the Lakeland Ledger on March 17, 2013:
By Kevin Bouffard
State Rep. Neil Combee supported red-light cameras until last December, when a camera at North Florida Avenue and Memorial Boulevard in Lakeland snagged him for a violation.
“I wasn’t real happy,” the Polk City Republican said recently on the way to Tallahassee for his first legislative session. “For the longest time, I’d been a supporter because I’ve seen people flying though red lights without concern for the law.”
Combee said he is reconsidering his position not because of the $158 fine but because the experience taught him about the limitations of red-light cameras.
The violation happened because he was driving behind a tractor-trailer rig and could not see the traffic light had turned yellow, Combee said. By the time the semi cleared, he could not stop in time.
Combee said he subsequently re-created the same scenario several times and discovered a semi will obscure a traffic light even if keeping the recommended space between vehicles.
“It caused me to consider maybe I need to rethink what red-light cameras are about,” said Combee.
Unlike the tens of thousands of Florida motorists also ticketed through red-light cameras — including more than 91,000 motorists ticketed in Lakeland and Haines City through last year — Combee may be in a position to change the state law passed in 2010 that permits the traffic systems.
A bill to repeal that permission is pending in the Florida House of Representatives Appropriations Committee chaired by state Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.
Although McKeel voted for a similar bill last year, which passed the House 59-57, he was not showing his hand on this year’s bill.
“I respect the concerns of those on both sides of the issue and look forward to a thoughtful debate on the matter this session,” McKeel said in an email to The Ledger.
Last year’s House bill did not get enacted for lack of a companion bill in the Florida Senate.
Despite the red-light camera systems in Lakeland and Haines City, or perhaps because of the public backlash against them, a majority in the Polk County legislative delegation leans toward supporting the repeal measure.
“My concern is not the fate of red-light cameras but what’s next. What’s the next surveillance mode that computers will interject into our daily lives?” said state Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, whose district includes southwestern Polk.
Albritton, also a member of the Appropriations Committee, said he supports the repeal bill. Combee and McKeel indicated they were undecided, and state Rep. Mike LaRosa, R-Kissimmee, did not answer phone and email inquiries from The Ledger.
Of the four members of Polk’s House delegation, only state Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, stood firmly opposed to repealing red-light camera authority.
“I’m a firm believer in local authority,” Wood said. “It’s a decision each community should make. I have faith that local leaders will make the right decision and, if they don’t, they will be replaced by the voters.”
On the Senate side of the local delegation, Republican Sens. Kelli Stargel of Lakeland and Denise Grimsley of Sebring voted for last year’s repeal bill when they represented House districts. Both told The Ledger they haven’t changed.
“I think cities are abusing the red-light cameras,” Stargel said. “I think a lot of cities use it as a revenue generator. If they put them at the highest risk intersections, I would understand that.”
Only state Sen. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, whose district includes Haines City and northeastern Polk, opposes repeal.
“I support red-light cameras because they save lives,” Soto said.
However, Grimsley, Soto and Stargel may not vote on the issue this year. Like last year, House sponsors of the repeal effort failed to find a senator to sponsor a companion bill in the upper body.
“It (the current repeal bill) will probably pass the House and probably not come to a vote in the Senate,” Soto said.
Stargel agreed, adding the Senate’s bill filing deadline has passed and she has no plans to sponsor a red-light-camera amendment to another Senate bill.
Another red-light-camera bill has a better chance of enactment because it has a Senate companion. It would not repeal local authority to use the traffic systems but would put more restrictions on their use.
The bill sponsored by state Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, would prohibit ticketing for improper right turns at red lights and sets minimum times a traffic signal would display a yellow light. That addresses criticisms local officials have manipulated yellow-light times to increase the chance of a red-light violation.
The Artiles bill passed the House Economic Affairs on Thursday and was sent to the Appropriations Committee, the last stop before a floor vote. No vote occurred as of last week on the companion Senate bill, which is assigned to the Transportation and Appropriations committees.
Haines City Police Chief Rick Sloan said yellow-light times currently conform to the standards set by the Florida Department of Transportation, which are based on posted speeds, road conditions and other factors. He rejected the charge yellow-light times changed at any of the nine intersections that have had the cameras since January 2011.
Sloan, the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Police Chiefs Association oppose the repeal and the Artiles’ bills. They argue the systems primarily serve public safety.
“The main thing people need to consider is it is changing driving behaviors,” Sloan said.
Once drivers become accustomed to red-light cameras at some intersections, they will change their driving behavior at all intersections, he said.
The Artiles bill “will change behavior in the other direction,” Sloan said.
Sloan and Kevin Cook, spokesman for the city of Lakeland, also disputed the allegation the red-light fines are major sources of revenue for their departments.
Under the 2010 state law, the state gets more than half of the $158 fine, or $83, Sloan said. It receives about $80 million a year from all cities using red-light cameras.
Lakeland and Haines City split their $75 share with Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions, which provides and maintains the equipment, and must pay for its own costs, primarily wages for the officers to review the videos to determine if a violation occurred.
Lakeland pays American Traffic $4,250 for each of the nine cameras in the city, or $459,000 per year. Haines City pays $4,750 a month for each of 13 cameras, or $741,000 annually.
In 2012, the Haines City Police Department realized $379,291 in additional revenue from red-light camera fines out of a total budget of more than $6 million, Sloan said. The city realized $755,567 in 2011, the system’s first year, because it had 9,727 more violations.
While most cities see major revenue from red-light camera fines in the first year, the returns diminish significantly in subsequent years, said Amy Mercer, executive director of the Florida Police Chiefs Association.
“If you look at the nuts and bolts of it, by the time you pay for it, it’s really not a cash cow,” she said.
Florida cities that use red-light cameras have consistently seen the number of citations, and thus revenue, go down each year, Mercer said, and that’s precisely the intent.
Haines City’s citations declined 31 percent in the second year, while citations in Lakeland have dropped from 20,319 tickets in 2010 to 10,812 tickets in 2011 to just 7,781 violations last year, according to city statistics.
Cook, Sloan and Mercer cite that as evidence the traffic systems improve public safety.
Representative Combee agreed that red-light cameras change driving habits, but not quite in the way the law enforcement officials intended.
“If I can avoid (driving in) Lakeland, I do,” he said.
View the original article here: http://www.theledger.com/article/20130317/NEWS/130319233?p=all&tc=pgall