State Politics

Red-light bill gets Senate hearing

MANATEE — Melissa Wandall is among those planning to testify today in Tallahassee in favor of legislation authorizing the use of high-tech cameras to catch those who run red lights.

She knows all too well the dangers of such behavior, as she is the widow of Mark Wandall, in whose memory the proposed legislation is titled.

Her husband died in an accident Oct. 24, 2004, at State Road 70 and Tara Boulevard, about a mile from her home. It was caused by a driver who had run a red light.

Now, five years later, Melissa Wandall hopes that changes in state law that she has fought for since then will finally be approved.

A state House committee passed a bill Tuesday that would allow counties and municipalities to use cameras to click images of cars in the act of running red lights. A state Senate committee is slated to take up a companion measure today.

The proposals call for allocation of part of the fines that stem from violations of traffic laws to be given to trauma centers, hospitals and nursing homes.

“It is nothing more than saving lives, and these cameras prove they save lives and cut down on intersection traffic crashes by 45 percent,” said Wandall, 41, of Bradenton, a motivational speaker whose daughter, Madison, was born shortly after her husband’s death.

“This bill is about her,” said Wandall, referring to Madison. “Letting her know that with something so negative, we try to make a difference in other peoples’ lives. It’s healing for us as well.”

Also planning to testify is Neil Spirtas, vice president of STOP Red Light Running Coalition of Florida, Inc., a nonprofit organization.

“It’s a safety concern we’re following closely,” said Spirtas, who is also vice president for public policy and small business at the Manatee Chamber of Commerce.

In 2007, the state recorded 106 fatalities and 10,720 injuries stemming from motorists who ran red lights, said Spirtas.

As a demonstration project, a camera was installed at the intersection of 34th Street and 53rd Avenue West in Bradenton in 2006, Spirtas said. The intersection was marked with warning signs telling motorists that a camera was in operation, but officials did not issue any fines to violators caught in the act.

After nine months, an analysis showed a 96 percent drop in the number of drivers running the light, Spirtas said.

Though the legislation has been stymied before, this year it has a powerful sponsor in the form of House Speaker Pro Tempore Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, author of the “The Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act.”

“I firmly believe it’s a good bill for public safety,” Reagan said Tuesday.

“I do believe it’s my fifth year carrying the bill — I think we’ll be able to get it passed this year.

“It’s primarily about public safety. If someone runs a red light, we do have an opportunity to change their behavior. You run a red light, we issue a citation, and hope to change the driving behavior of people who callously run red lights. The main focus, pure and simple, is public safety, and the opportunity to use modern devices to help people in our state.”

So, what are its chances of passage? “Very good,” Reagan said.

“It’s amazing the amount of support we’ve received from the bill, all over the state, a true bi-partisan effort,” he said.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 708-7908.