Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Once again, yellow means green, red means maybe

A court has tossed thousands of red-light camera cases in Broward. This photo shows cars lined up in 2013 at Pines Boulevard and 129th Avenue in Pembroke Pines.
A court has tossed thousands of red-light camera cases in Broward. This photo shows cars lined up in 2013 at Pines Boulevard and 129th Avenue in Pembroke Pines. MIAMI HERALD FILE

Yellow has a new meaning in my life.

A few months ago, yellow signified “apply the brakes.”

But the Fourth District Court of Appeal has altered my very perception of color. The state appeal panel left municipal and county red-light camera programs in disarray last fall with a decision that the city of Hollywood should not have outsourced enforcement to a private company.

The ruling led Broward County courts to toss some 24,000 tickets against red-light runners. And a number of cities in the Fourth District (including Palm Beach and Broward counties) suspended enforcement until the programs could be reconfigured.

Suddenly yellow looked different. Red undertones disappeared. Yellow became just another shade of green. It meant pound the accelerator.

Two weeks ago the Florida Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal of the Hollywood case. And in federal court in Miami, a class action suit challenging the legal basis for red-light camera fine collections is scheduled for trial this summer.

Unless the cities and counties work out the legal problems, we’re heading back to the traffic chaos that inspired local governments to adopt red-light cameras. Back when traffic signals were considered hardly more than a vague hint.

I once counted eight cars that continued through a busy intersection on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, never mind that the light was outright red. Of course, by the time the intersection had been cleared of red-light runners, so little go-time remained for drivers in the perpendicular lanes that they also felt compelled to run red lights out of a sense of equity. Negotiating major South Florida intersections felt like a test of one’s manhood. Except that the women drivers were just as crazy.

Fatal accidents at intersections fell when cameras were installed after 2010. Driving seemed saner. But the devices were never popular, offending drivers who felt they infringed on their constitutional right to hurl through intersections. Pedestrians and bicyclers? They’ve always been considered expendable in South Florida.

The disgruntled were right, however, about towns that set up quickie yellow light sequences just to gin up those $158 tickets. Or about the mushy interpretations of what’s a permissible right turn on red. Those irritants must be fixed.

But the legal snafu had to do with government ceding authority to private contractors to cull through photos and issue violation notices. The Fourth District appeal panel ruled that only a law enforcement officer can make such decisions in Florida.

Private vendors have been pocketing, on average, 49 percent of the take. (In the fiscal year beginning in July 2013, 647,991 violators caught by the 648 cameras in Florida paid their fines.) If actual police officers do this work, local government will need a much bigger percentage.

Red-light haters accuse cities of using red-light cameras as revenue generators, rather than devices intended to make the streets safer. Maybe, but I’d rather that traffic violators supplement local taxes that otherwise would fall to us more careful drivers.

Careful, that is, once I re-remember the meaning of yellow.