Senate Transportation Chairman Jeff Brandes’ latest proposal to drive red-light cameras out of Florida squeezed through its first committee Thursday.
The proposal (SB 168) was backed by the Brandes-led Senate Transportation Committee in a 4-3 vote along party lines, with opposition also coming from local-government lobbyists and the Florida Police Chiefs Association.
Brandes’ measure would repeal a law known as the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act of 2010 and, as a result, prevent local governments from using the cameras for traffic enforcement. It’s the third year in a row that Brandes has tried in one way or another to repeal the Mark Wandall Act, which gave local governments authority to install red-light cameras.
Palm Coast installed cameras–illegally–in 2007, when state law did not permit their installation locally. A Florida Supreme Court decision in 2014 ruled those installations illegal, clearing the way for motorists who’d been ticketed under the old scheme to get reimbursements. But the court did not address the constitutionality of red-light cameras, deferring to the 2010 state law. That’s the law Brandes and others have been attempting to repeal.
Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, contends local governments use revenue from the cameras as a “backdoor” or “hidden” tax increase and that intersections are not made safer by any changes to driving habits related to the cameras.
“The simple truth is red-light cameras don’t increase safety, that they’re essentially a revenue-generation tool,” said Brandes, who has repeatedly sought to revamp or unplug the cameras in recent years.
There is no conclusive evidence showing red-light cameras as an effective traffic-safety tool. Evidence shows that while they reduce one type of accidents such as t-boning, they increase rear-end accidents. At one point, Palm Coast had upward of 40 cameras spread around town. But the scheme came under increasing attack from motorists and even local judges, who criticized Palm Coast government’s administration of the system. Last year, an appeal court decision found the administrative scheme controlling the levying of fines to be illegally conducted across Florida, including in Palm Coast. That caused many cities to end their program. Palm Coast scaled back its installations to just five cameras, and voted to end the contract with American Traffic Solutions, the private company running the scheme, in 2017 instead of in 2019.
Previous measures at the Legislature have sought to lengthen the time for yellow lights and to improve signage at intersections. Also, in 2014 Brandes put the brakes on a proposal to prevent local governments from using the cameras when he wasn’t able to line up enough votes in support.
It remains to be seen how much mileage Brandes gets on this year’s effort.
Democratic members of the committee said local governments should maintain the option to use the cameras and that the technology changes driving habits for the better.
“I’ve had one red-light ticket. And after I got it I never got another one because I stopped doing it, and that was probably like three or four years ago,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens. “So I kind of believe personally that they work.”
A staff analysis of the bill noted that numerous studies have been conducted on the safety impact of red-light cameras “and the studies are contradictory.”
Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said the measure goes against local control.
“I think it continues to take us down the road of thinking that we know best here in Tallahassee, rather than the people who represent the cities and represent the counties and are closer to the people,” Thompson said.
Scott Dudley, Florida League of Cities legislative director, took exception to Brandes saying municipalities use the cameras as a tax source.
“You called these a hidden tax,” Dudley said. “I think it’s a hidden tax that can be easily avoided by not running a red light. If you don’t do it, you don’t pay the tax.”
Dudley added that the league doesn’t support or oppose the technology, but it argues local governments should maintain the option to use cameras.
Owners of vehicles photographed going through red lights are subject to $158 fines. For each fine, $75 is retained by the local government and the rest goes to the state Department of Revenue.
State numbers indicate that 75 jurisdictions operated red-light cameras in the most recently completed fiscal year.
The Senate committee Thursday also made a change to the bill so that it would take effect July 1, 2019. The proposal initially was to be effective when signed into law. Brandes said the change is in part to allow existing contracts between municipalities and red-light camera companies to expire.
The bill must still get through two more Senate panels. A similar measure in the House (HB 4027) was approved last month by the Economic Affairs Committee and has only one more stop — the Appropriations Committee — before reaching the House floor.
–FlaglerLive and Jim Turner, News Service of Florida