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Melissa Wandall readies for another fight over red-light cameras

Red light camera fight looms .... Again

Melissa Wandall prepares for the latest legislative battle to fend off another attempt to repeal the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act. Bradenton Herald Mark Young
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Melissa Wandall prepares for the latest legislative battle to fend off another attempt to repeal the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act. Bradenton Herald Mark Young

For the seventh consecutive year, Bradenton’s Melissa Wandall will travel to Tallahassee on Tuesday to address the Senate Transportation Committee to combat a new effort to repeal the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act. The bill authorized the use of red-light cameras in Florida starting in 2010.

The repeal effort, which began in the Florida House, has only made it out of committee once, and has never made it to the Senate floor. “But you never know what can happen,” said Wandall, whose husband was killed 14 years ago by a red-light runner.

“I mean no ill will when I say this, but one thing I’ve learned when it comes to legislators is everything happens after dark,” Wandall said. “It’s not always about the facts, and they don’t do their homework unless it’s something that really matters to them.”

Wandall, president of the National Coalition for Safer Roads, has placed herself in the middle of what has become one of the state’s most polarized issues. Conflicting studies divide public opinion. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a report late last year that shows a 33 percent decrease in the deadly high-speed T-bone style crashes at red-light camera intersections.

Critics of the study point to various flawed measures in the way the study was conducted and doesn’t take into account mitigating factors such as distracted behaviors like texting or whether the red-light runner was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In either case, red-light cameras may not have made a difference.

City studies also vary. In Bradenton, Police Chief Melanie Bevan reported a 7 percent decrease in the more deadly crashes at red-light camera intersections prior to the city voting to turn them off last summer over concerns with the contractor. However, Bevan said red-light camera data is, at best, “convoluted.”

Bradenton has slowed its debate on whether to re-implement the red-light program until the city knows what the Legislature will do. Manatee County, on the other hand, expanded its red-light program with its 10th red-light camera in October.

Wandall said distracted driving is an issue that contends with bad behaviors, but no one should suffer the loss of a loved one if it can be prevented.

I’ve been going to Tallahassee every year for 13 years and it’s still as empty in my home as it’s ever been.

Melissa Wandall, president of the National Coalition for Safer Roads

“It’s awful,” she said. “It breaks your heart into a thousand pieces. For me, there are simply no options. Each preventable crash protects a life from injury or death and saves families from needless heartache. I am merely trying to keep people from living my life. And if one life where a daughter is spared that pain of not ever knowing her father, then it is worth it.”

Wandall said she is often viciously attacked on a personal level by those who believe the cameras are just government intrusion. Her 12 years of dedication to get the legislation passed and then defend it against repeal falls under the one belief that if one life is saved, it was worth the hardship to save her husband’s “life-saving legacy.”

“I’ve been openly criticized for saying that if one life is saved, it’s worth it,” Wandall said. “But maybe if someone had tried to do this before me, my husband would still be here. Maybe not, but maybe. That drives me everyday. I’ve been going to Tallahassee every year for 13 years, and it’s still as empty in my home as it’s ever been.”

She’s ready to plead her case again next week. And while she would like to move on to other important causes like bicycle and pedestrian safety, she said, if necessary, she will continue to fight every year.

“Not everyone diligently stands firm for 13 years,” she said. “But the worse thing happened to me on Oct. 24, 2003. Everything after that is not so bad.”

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