While not pulling the plug on the controversial devices, a Florida House committee Thursday approved a bill that would place more restrictions on how cities and counties use red-light cameras to police busy intersections.
The bill (HB 1061) would prevent using the cameras to cite drivers for improperly turning right on red lights. Also, it would set minimum amounts of time for yellow traffic lights to display and could give drivers more legal tools to fight citations.
Bill sponsor, Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, said he wants to make sure drivers’ due-process rights are protected. “This does not ban red-light cameras,” Artiles said before the House Economic Affairs Committee voted 12-4 to approve the measure. “This regulates them at minimums.”
If they become law, the restrictions would seriously crimp the use of red-light cameras as revenue generators, as is the case in Palm Coast, where up to 52 such cameras are in place–at least for the companies operating the cameras.
Palm Coast designed its contract with American Traffic Solutions in such a way as to be guaranteed upwards of $400,000 a year, whether tickets are issued or not. ATS must pay Palm Coast $700 per camera per month. But for the deal to be profitable for ATS, the company must generate well over 5,460 enforceable tickets, since it will cost it 5,460 tickets just to pay Palm Coast’s share (taking into account the $78 per $158 it must also send the state). Many of those tickets are generated by right-turn “violations,” which drivers notoriously contest.
Under the state’s red light camera statute, a city or county may issue a notice of violation and a traffic citation for a right-on-red violation unless the motorist makes the right-hand turn in a “careful and prudent manner,” according to a legislative analysis of the proposed bill. However, the red light camera statute does not define what constitutes a “careful and prudent manner,” leaving it to the subjectivity of local enforcers.
Though Artiles and local-government groups said they are trying to reach agreement on the bill, the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Police Chiefs Association expressed opposition to the current version.
League of Cities lobbyist Casey Cook, for example, said using the cameras to enforce right-on-red violations is important in places such as beach communities, which have large amounts of pedestrian traffic.
“We think that is a local decision, and it should stay that way,” Cook said.
The bill is slated to go next to the House Appropriations Committee. Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Royal Palm Beach, has filed a similar measure (SB 1342), though it has not been heard in a Senate committee.
With red-light cameras popping up at intersections across the state in recent years, the Legislature has repeatedly debated whether to ban or restrict the devices. The cameras take images of vehicles running red lights, a violation that carries a $158 fine. (In the last fiscal year, Palm Coast was one of 71 jurisdictions operating red light cameras in Florida. Collectively, these 71 jurisdictions remitted $51 million to the state, of which $43 million went to the general fund, $6.1 million went to the Department of Health, and $1.9 million went to the Brain & Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund. So far this year, 77 jurisdictions are operating such cameras.
While local governments support the use of the cameras, critics point to issues such as the photographic images not being able to identify the drivers who are running red lights. As a result, notices are sent to the owners of the vehicles — regardless of whether they were actually behind the wheel.
Artiles’ bill includes a formula for the minimum amount of time yellow lights would have to display, which could decrease the number of red-light violations. Also, it would make changes in the process used to appeal camera-related citations, such as requiring authentication of evidence in court.
Rep. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami, and Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, are sponsoring another measure (HB 4011) that would bar local governments from using red-light cameras. That bill also passed the Economic Affairs Committee last month, by a slimmer 10-8 margin.
–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida, and FlaglerLive