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Monday, Dec 22, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Stop the cash grab and bag the cameras

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Published:   |   Updated: March 17, 2014 at 08:20 AM

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In the South Florida city of Tamarac, officials placed a red-light camera at an intersection by the local hospital’s emergency room. According to the website Florida Watchdog, a man who thought he was having a heart attack was rushing for treatment at that hospital when he was stopped by a traffic light.

He said he waited several minutes at the intersection but the light didn’t change. He told Florida Watchdog he was feeling “desperate,” so he ran through the intersection. The Big Brother eye in the sky, pointed only in his direction, captured it all.

A few weeks later, the man received notice of a $158 fine, the standard under the state’s red-light camera law.

He contested the fine and even showed his hospital discharge papers, but was told by the magistrate that a medical emergency didn’t constitute a “sufficient excuse.”

That might be the most egregious example of Orwellian excess in the name of safety, but it’s hardly the only one. In the Central Florida town of Clermont, officials were surprised after approving cameras for this year to find that 88 percent of the violations were for right turns on red, not for running though an intersection.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that one local resident, Matthew Modica, told the city council, “The cameras are not about safety, they’re about money. It’s Big Brother gone mad.”

A report to the state Senate Transportation Committee last month showed red-light revenue has jumped from $37.6 million in 2010-11 when cameras were introduced statewide to $118.8 million in 2012-13. Nearly half of that has gone to pay the program vendor, American Traffic Solutions.

Of the amount left over, 76 percent goes into general municipal and state funds. The chairman of that committee, Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, has argued the fines are a “backdoor tax” and wants to shut down the cameras statewide.

That’s not what proponents want to talk about, of course. They say Big Brother makes the state’s streets safer. They point to a 49 percent drop in fatalities at monitored intersections since cameras were installed.

Case closed, right?

Not exactly.

The same report shows a 12 percent increase in crashes at intersections where cameras are used. That includes a 35 percent spike in rear-end collisions.

Several Florida cities, including St. Pete, have either pulled the plug on cameras or will in the near future. Cameras are losing their appeal nationwide, too. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the number of cities using cameras dropped from a high of 540 in 2012 to 508 this year.

There are alternatives, such as better-timed traffic lights to keep traffic flowing. That would reduce driver frustration. Add a few seconds before the light turns green, creating in essence a four-way stop. Have the green light blink a few seconds before it turns yellow.

You would accomplish safety and fairness without the state looking over your shoulder and reaching for your wallet. The cash grab needs to stop.

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