Across the Tampa Bay area controversy rages over red-light cameras. They are banned in St. Petersburg but generate millions for Clearwater, mirroring a national debate over whether the devices are public safety tools or cash cows for communities.
According to the latest data from the National Coalition of State Legislatures, communities in 23 states and the District of Columbia use red-light cameras for traffic enforcement.
But at least 11 states have banned them, including Texas, which did so earlier this year. There, lawmakers including Republican Gov. Gregg Abbott sided with drivers who expressed dissatisfaction with the devices and questioned their effectiveness.
“Common sense says that red-light cameras have never prevented an intersection accident or instance of red-light running. The cameras are silent sentinels,” Gary Biller, president of the National Motorists Association, told The Washington Times.
Mr. Biller cited a Case Western Reserve study from last year arguing that the “presence of red-light cameras typically causes an increase in accidents because drivers, suddenly aware of the ticketing potential of automated enforcement, tend to hit their brakes hard which often results in more accidents (of the rear-end variety) than if no cameras were present.”
The National Motorists Association opposes all automated traffic enforcement because its members believe the devices violate driver’s constitutional rights due to the lack of witnesses to alleged violations.
The devices have been controversial since they first appeared in the 1990s at some of the country’s most dangerous intersections. Anger over them quickly mounted over fines that can run more than $200 in some places and often prove to be hard to challenge.
Municipalities, however, have praised the cameras’ capacity to reduce red-light accidents, in addition to their ability to generate revenue. Washington, D.C., made almost $200 million from its network of speed and red-light cameras in 2017. Other communities routinely report similar windfalls.
Earlier this month the AAA automobile owners club released a study on government crash data that only intensified the debate. AAA researchers that the number of people killed by drivers running red lights had hit a 10-year high, with roughly two people dying each day.
AAA admitted it was unsure why the numbers were rising, with analysts speculating that distracted driving could be playing a role.
But it did suggest that reversing the trend would entail governments increasing their use of red-light cameras, provided that the devices were used to boost enforcement and not to raise revenue.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a proponent of cameras, argues that transparency is paramount in securing citizen support for the devices.
“The jury has been in for many years. Red-light safety cameras are a proven, effective tool to make urban roads safer,” Russ Rader, IIHS senior vice president of communications, said in an email. “Public support is a key issue.”
Citizen dissatisfaction and a nontransparent process have been at the heart of Tampa Bay’s struggle with the devices.
Florida state Sen. Jeff Brandes, St. Petersburg Republican, has introduced several bills since 2012 to outlaw red-light cameras across the state, where courts routinely dismiss massive batches of tickets for being wrongly issued.
“The way you can tell that municipalities use cameras as revenue tools is that as soon as a city starts lose revenue on one of these programs, they immediately pull the cameras out,” Mr. Brandes told The Times.
While Florida has been working to scale back the use of devices, officials in New York City announced this summer they soon will build the nation’s largest automated traffic-enforcement camera system to protect students at the city’s public schools, with 2,000 cameras issuing tickets.