In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Don’t like red-light cameras? Here’s a thought: Don’t run red lights

 <span class="cutline_leadin">JUST THE FACTS</span>: A Florida study showed a decrease in crashes where red-light cameras were installed.
JUST THE FACTS: A Florida study showed a decrease in crashes where red-light cameras were installed.
HARRY LYNCH / File photo, 2003

For you Florida drivers incensed by the unblinking eye of Big Brother, or, to be more exact, by the citations doled out by red light cameras, here’s a thought:

Don’t run red lights.

When the traffic light turns yellow, don’t accelerate.

When the light turns red, don’t blast through the intersection.

A nice secondary effect, aside from cheating Big Bro out of his $158 “failure to stop” fine, is that by stopping at the red light, you won’t kill me. Or any other pedestrian or bicycle rider or hapless driver who mistakenly assumed that in Florida, a green light signals that it’s safe to proceed across the intersection.

Red light cameras save lives and reduce serious injuries. Fewer idiots, denied their inalienable right to run red lights, precipitate brutal T-bone crashes. A 12-county study by the state Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability found that the number of fatalities fell 49 percent at Florida intersections where cameras had been installed. That accounted for 18 fewer deaths, not to mention 69 fewer serious injuries, in those counties.

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported that an overwhelming majority of communities with red light cameras (56 of 59) reported a decrease in the number of intersection crashes.

And people learn. Even idiots. The department found that 95 percent of the drivers zapped by a red-light camera have not received a second citation.

Traffic safety, however, doesn’t much matter to Rep. Frank Artiles of Miami and Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, who have filed bills this legislative session that would stop cities and counties from installing new red-light cameras and eliminate local government’s share of the fines.

Apparently, the cameras, which generated $118.9 million in revenue during the 2012-13 fiscal year, offend their libertarian sensibilities. Sen. Brandes calls the fines “a backdoor tax.” He complained that cities and counties were exploiting red-light fines to pad their budgets.

Well, why not tax the reckless?

Last year, red light-running knuckleheads in Fort Lauderdale, where I live, paid about $2.5 million in citations, which was divvied up with 47 percent going to the city, 53 percent to the state. That meant fewer dollars extracted from law-abiding residents for city services, after the cameras’ vendors are paid off. By not running red lights, we received an automatic exemption from Brandes’ feared “backdoor tax.”

Take that, Big Brother.

Admittedly, the 53 percent share going to the state isn’t a fair disturbution. Most of the 922 intersections outfitted with cameras are in South and Central Florida. Miami, for example, sent $6.5 million in red-light citation collections up to Tallahassee. Miami Gardens contributed $3.2 million, North Miami $2 million. Meanwhile, the money needed to pay the vendors comes out of the city and county shares (an average of about 50 percent of the local take.) The state contributes nothing toward the camera lease contracts.

But the Brandes and Artiles bills, rather than address the state-local inequity, would only punish city and county taxpayers. Fines would be reduced to $83 from $158 by wiping out local government’s $75 cut. All the money would go to the state. The only revenue cities and counties would be allowed to collect would be a surcharge just large enough to cover existing contracts with camera vendors. Any excess money collected through the surcharge goes straight to Tallahassee. The bill also would ban installation of any new cameras after July 1.

The Florida League of Cities, the whipped dogs of Florida’s various governments, opposes the measure. The League stated, “Due to budget constraints and unfunded mandates, local governments commonly have limited law-enforcement resources, and photo enforcement helps stretch those resources. Paired with traditional law-enforcement techniques, red-light safety camera technology makes Florida’s streets safer for drivers, bikers and pedestrians.”

But both Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford said they’d support the Brandes-Artiles bills, which would return Florida cities to that wonderful era when red lights no longer impinged on a freedom-loving citizen’s right to speed through an intersection.

After all, state lawmakers — no matter how much they loathe big-government interference from Washington — delight in so-called “preemption” bills that allow Tallahassee to overrule the judgment of local elected officials. This is why counties can’t prohibit gunslingers from packing heat in their parks or why cities can’t regulate backyard gun ranges. This is why local governments can’t ban exotic animals, no matter how dangerous, or prohibit smoking in parks or playgrounds. And now Tallahassee seems intent on preempting a life-saving, crash-reducing traffic-safety initiative right out of existence.

Oh my, how our legislators do love to lord it over local government. Tallahassee always knows what’s best for cities and counties. Talk about Big Brother.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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