Florida Red-Light Cameras Bill Represents Victory For Civil Liberties

This past Valentine's Day, a Florida legislative committee courted civil libertarians everywhere on an issue of increasing interest to freedom lovers across the country. By a 10-8 vote, they introduced a bill which would ban cities and counties from installing traffic infraction detectors, such as red light cameras (RLC). Conservatives and liberals paired up on each side of the vote.

Those opposing the ban insisted that RLCs free up police officers to better do the work that can't be automated, have raised tens of millions of dollars for public coffers, and are vital to the safety of residents and visitors. The debate uncovered flaws with all of these assertions.

Problem cases were cited, such as when an officer did not correctly read the tag number on a motorcycle in the photo, leading to an unfortunate owner across the state receiving a ticket. Such incidents reveal how difficult and expensive it can be to appeal these tickets. Cities have been caught reducing yellow light timing to entrap more "paying customers." Even more insidious conflicts of interest have been uncovered where police chiefs pursued a portion of the $75 processing fees by receiving their own ticket processing franchise upon retirement, after using their public office to help land contracts for companies who market the cameras at significant taxpayer cost.

While RLCs are a cash cow for those companies, debate highlighted the reality that cities and counties are missing out on the bonanza. Revenue from ticket "sales" are often swallowed up via administrative duties by officers and other public workers, consulting & court fees, and other unforeseen expenses. One representative from South Florida was shocked to learn all this; apparently, he'd been told RLCs were the answer to his town's ballooning budget deficit probably during that sales pitch he'd attended. The state of Florida now locks all public proceeds from RLCs into a special fund for treating brain and spine injuries, anyway, until the question is settled on who should get it.

Another RLC fan chimed in on the argument of these costs, declaring that to him, it was worth losing a million taxpayer dollars if the cameras saved just one life. While we can all appreciate just how noble his sentiment is, the statistics just don't provide proof for it.

Accidents and traffic fatality rates have fallen in recent years. The trouble is they have been reduced all over, even at intersections not equipped with RLCs and in rural counties where people think these devils are still in the science fiction phase. There are other factors to be considered. It's likely that in the wake of Cash for Clunkers and the automotive financing free-for-all in the late 2000s, the cars on the road now are on average much newer models, equipped with airbags and easier to maneuver and stop in emergencies.

Laws against running red lights and the cameras made to enforce them do not differentiate based on how much time has elapsed between the light turning red and when the infraction occurs. Whether that period of time is 0.15 seconds or 15 seconds, the camera operators send a ticket for $158. Mmost of them are for violations within a fraction of a second or two, which simply do not lead to accidents.

A police officer at the scene would be able to add a ticket for reckless driving to the 15 second guy, since running a red light so late is what actually opens up the likelihood for angular impacts with devastating results. These infractions typically also involve a driver who is texting or DUI, types of drivers who won't be affected by an inconspicuous gray box with a camera in it. Since the high cost of the cameras are justified by the patrol car and warm-bodied officers they replace on the scene, no one will be there to assess drivers who actually do endanger themselves and others.

Republicans in support of the ban offered constitutional arguments for due process and against self-incrimination, citing that the for-profit companies use a guilty-until-proven-innocent mode of operation. They also worried about the temptation for corruption by public servants. Democrats pointed out that as RLCs are very often installed just at high-volume intersections in densely populated urban centers, they disproportionately affect minority populations, and create economic hardship through fines and license suspensions.

Orlando has collected over $9 million from them so far, so RLCs have left an ugly $158 reminder in the mailboxes of many tourists after their trip to Disney World and other attractions. Tourism is Florida's #1 industry, so constituents who depend on it all over the state have expressed concern about how necessary these cameras are in comparison to the potential economic impact.

Safety has always been bullet #1 on the RLC companies' PowerPoint script, but it was difficult to prove the effect of the cameras before installing them and measuring the results. After over seven years of study the verdict is now in: there is still no statistically significant evidence that RLCs decrease or increase traffic accidents, injuries, or fatalities. Still, many cities now face huge cancellation penalties their leaders agreed to when signing up for camera installations.

The truth seems clear as the RLC lobby fights for its life in the Sunshine State. This is not about our safety, it's about little robotic spies that can take our money, and the authoritarians who put them there.