We are not sure what’s more disappointing: that the Florida Senate failed to take any action on a House bill that soon would have rid the state of red-light cameras. Or that bringing a brand new majority on board the Lakeland City Commission failed to bring new thinking about a misguided policy.
Either way, regrettably, these pole-mounted menaces' unblinking eye will remain with us for the foreseeable future.
Hope lived at the dawn of the Legislature’s session that these largely unpopular “traffic infraction detectors,” as they’re known in political jargon, would disappear within the next few years. Early on, the Florida House voted 83-18 for a bill that, come July 2021, would have stripped city and county governments of the authority to maintain or install red-light cameras. (All four House members representing Polk County voted for this measure.)
It wouldn’t come cheap. A House staff analysis shows the state would have cut annual revenues by almost $78 million, and deprived local governments of about $77 million.
But as Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican, noted before the vote, “Red light cameras do not benefit the public. They only benefit local governments addicted to the revenue they generate and the companies that provide the services.”
To Ingoglia’s point, the fine for running a red light at these intersections is $158. If the light belongs to the local government, that government keeps $75, but from that also pays the vendor. The rest is sent to Tallahassee. If a Lakeland traffic cop writes the same ticket, The Ledger recently reported, the city keeps just $6 of a $121 citation. Meanwhile, according to that House staff report, the vendors in cities that operate red-light cameras reaped 49 percent of the local governments’ revenues.
Yet the Senate never took any action on the bill.
In Lakeland last week, the City Commission voted 6-1, with Commissioner Michael Dunn dissenting, voted to renew its contract with its vendor, American Traffic Solutions. One benefit is that by renewing now, the city will save $84,000 on operating the 18 cameras.
Before the vote police Chief Larry Giddens told the board that these drivers, after all, are lawbreakers. His officers are only trying to prevent that in the most efficient, cost-effective way. The chief is kind of a stickler for that sort of thing, and so we appreciate and respect his opinion.
But the main objection to these things persists: revenues go up, but crashes don’t go down.
While the city claims the state’s methodology for evaluating crash data differs from its own, by any analysis, even that most favorable to the police, the story in Lakeland and around the state is that the cameras have a mixed bag of success. The Ledger reported that crashes at some camera-patrolled intersections are up and some are down.
Statewide over each of the last two years, according to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, crashes at intersections with cameras were up about 10 percent compared to the period before cameras were installed. Likewise, wrecks with injuries jumped about 8.5 percent post-camera, and total fatal collisions over that span went from 11 to 19.
The bright side was that crashes involving running a red light were down, but only about 4 percent.
As Commissioner Dunn observed at the meeting, at least in Lakeland’s case, “There is no consistent pattern of crash reduction.”
What’s extra creepy now is that the commission agreed that cameras at 14 intersections will in the future be equipped with radar to gauge a car's speed. Could that be turned on to one day start issuing speeding tickets by remote whether or not a red-light infraction occurs?
At the meeting Commissioner Stephanie Madden argued that extending the contract was worthwhile because the cameras paid for themselves. She’s right. Last year, the city issued $3.6 million in tickets, which based on the current formula means it kept $788,000 after rendering to Tallahassee and the contractor what they are owed.
But we would ask one simple question: If this generates revenue and allegedly promotes safety, why not install cameras at more city intersections? Wait scratch that. We don't want to give the commission any ideas.