State Politics

Lawmakers look at red-light cameras

TALLAHASSEE — Proponents say red-light traffic cameras save lives. Opponents call the devices Orwellian threats to freedom. The Florida Legislature is trying to map a route through the controversy.

Two bills (HB 325, SB 2166) would establish statewide guidelines for the use of red-light cameras, providing statutory cover for dozens of municipalities that already have installed them and, under questionable legal authority, are collecting fines from violators.

Both bills are named for Mark Wandall, instantly killed near Bradenton by a red-light runner in October 2003. He was 30. His wife, Melissa, was eight months pregnant with their first child.

When the light turns green, prudent drivers in Florida already hesitate and look both ways before proceeding. But Melissa Wandall believes all motorists need an additional margin of safety, so she began lobbying for the bills.

“There’s no more common sense on our highways,” she said. “We no longer have the right to expect to be safe at our intersections because so many people are violating the law.”

How many? A lot.

According to state legislative analysts, a two-month study at a single intersection in Palm Beach County found that 50 cars ran through red lights during an average day — and it often wasn’t a close call. Though many violations were matters of split seconds, 20 percent of those cars entered the intersection at least two seconds after the light changed.

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported that 76 people were killed and 5,607 people were injured in accidents caused in 2008 by drivers disregarding traffic signals.

Nationally, red light running kills about 750 people each year and injures 260,000, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“I needed to do something with what I had left,” Wandall said. “These cameras are so important. They really save lives.”

The House bill is sponsored by Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Sarasota, who lives about a mile from the site of the collision that killed Mark Wandall. Under the bill and a similar Senate measure, citations could be sent by mail and fines of about $155 could be assessed against the owners of vehicles that run red lights.

“There’s no question whatsoever that these cameras cut fatalities by 60 to 70 percent,” Reagan said. “But, more importantly, they make people more conscious, more aware, that they simply must stop on the red light.”