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Tuesday, Nov 25, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Camera ban is terrible plan; let locals decide

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Published:   |   Updated: March 17, 2014 at 09:20 AM

Let me guess. You’re wondering what a lifelong conservative is doing on the side of Big Brother purse snatchers who use red-light cameras to invade drivers’ privacy and shred the Bill of Rights, all for the sole purpose of lining the pockets of Big Bureaucracy.

To paraphrase Newt Gingrich, I reject your premise.

The fundamental purpose of government is the good maintenance of law and order. Everything else in society flows from the assurance that bad actors will be dealt with swiftly, efficiently and competently. Accordingly, it is a perfectly conservative position to regard red-light cameras as a tool useful for promoting an agreeable peace.

Like any tool, red-light cameras are only as good as their operators, and on that front critics have scored a few valid points. The appeals process unfairly penalized motorists who contested their tickets, and some local governments unconscionably shortened the duration of yellow lights to snare even alert, careful drivers. But these abuses have been at least somewhat alleviated.

Last May, the Florida Department of Transportation mandated lengthening of yellow lights, and the last foot-draggers recently complied. Moreover, last spring the Legislature created a friendlier appeals environment, although it opened the door for local governments to charge onerous administrative fees — up to $250 — for appellants who lose their cases.

It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if Tallahassee provided additional relief, starting with even greater yellow-light durations (longer yellows save lives). What the Legislature should not do is follow Sen. Jeff Brandes’ (R-St. Petersburg) preference for a statewide ban.

This is a classic mend-it-don’t-end-it situation. Legislators should provide clear guidelines about the circumstances surrounding the fair use of red-light camera systems, but otherwise leave the decision about deploying them to local lawmakers, who — presumably — have a better sense of what works for their unique circumstances.

Consider what’s unfolding on each side of Tampa Bay where, even as momentum gathered in St. Petersburg to kill its cameras, Tampa officials demonstrated confidence in theirs. Around the first of the year, 15 additional cameras went live, boosting Tampa’s coverage by a third, to nearly 60. It’s not the first time the two cities failed to share a vision.

It’s in everyone’s best interests to limit red-light running. And even as peer-reviewed studies produce conflicting conclusions, evidence on both sides of the bay suggests cameras blunt the scofflaw epidemic. Good. So what if local authorities monitor certain problematic intersections with unblinking eyes? Where’s it written that government has a responsibility to make it easier for people to get away with breaking the law?

Attentive motorists are tired of being played for chumps by those who think traffic signals were not designed for them. On behalf of beleaguered chumps everywhere, I have no trouble admitting this: I like red-light cameras because they nail motorists, hard, who think they can get away with it.

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