News Section: Opinion
Red Light Camera Presentation Confirms Public Skepticism
This week, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office's Red Light Camera Analysis Team gave a presentation to the county commission that seemed to validate the lead criticism of red light camera opponents, that being that their chief function is to create revenues rather than the promotion of safe driving.
Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube told the board that of the 10 most dangerous intersections in Manatee County he compiled in a list for the vendor, only one was included in the intersections they ultimately installed cameras at.
The intersections that Xerox State and Local Solutions Inc. chose seem to have one thing in common: they have highest rates of “turn-on-red roll through” violations. Statistically, an illegal right turn on red is almost never a factor in a traffic fatality (less than one half of one percent). But because coming to a near stop and slowly clearing an intersection at a right turn on red is common practice, it's an easy way to rack up violations.
Florida law enforcement officers can exercise discretion in issuing citations based on whether the driver cleared the intersection in a "careful and prudent manner" and MCSO explained that they weren't issuing citations that defied common sense, while showing video footage to demonstrate what could sometimes be asinine infractions sent to them by the vendor. The county's contract with Xerox, however, mandates that the company still gets $75 per violation even when MCSO exercises its discretion and determines that it does not warrant a citation. That seems to violate Florida law, which states: "A manufacturer or vendor may not receive a fee or remuneration based upon the number of violations detected through the use of a traffic infraction detector."
Red-light camera enforcement has been a problem since local governments began rushing to implement the devices in 2008-09. The state adopted the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act in 2010 to address enforcement issues that had arisen, by creating uniform policy. They also decided to take half of the revenue from each citation.
Facing strong opposition from the start, the law has survived annual efforts to repeal it, and several changes have been made in attempt to address problems with enforcement. The most obvious was that automated ticketing denies the accused a chance to confront their accuser, as per the Confrontation Clause of the 6th Amendment. Can you confront a camera? Would a vendor's employee reviewing the tape in Colorado have to fly to Florida for a hearing? The state responded by requiring videos to be reviewed by a local law enforcement officer before a ticket is issued, which then makes that local officer the one technically issuing the ticket and the person who appears in court if the violation is contested. Employing an officer to review video, however, further reduces revenue.
There are other problems with the law. It discourages contesting a supposed violation by offering one penalty for accepting the initial violation, while threatening a much more expensive one if it is unsuccessfully fought in traffic court. Violators who are ticketed by law enforcement officers at non-camera intersections have to pay a higher fine for breaking the same law. It also violates the due process clause of the 5th and 14th amendments by shifting the burden of proof for proving that a vehicle's registered owner was driving the car (even if the camera does not show the driver, they are liable for the violation unless they can get someone else to sign a sworn affidavit attesting that they were driving the vehicle and then accept the fine themselves).
There's also the fact that before going hog-wild with the cameras, no efforts were made by the state to make other (non-revenue producing) statutory changes that could have also had a significant impact on safety such as standardizing the time (or at least the method of determination) for yellow signals, requiring a brief and uniform “all-signals red” period at every light, etc.
At $158 per violation, the cameras produce significant revenue for the vendors, the state and the local governments. Initially, local governments in our area would typically net $1 million every six months, though governments said in 2013 that changed driver behavior had brought that number down significantly and that they ultimately expected them to be revenue neutral. Then the state revised the law to include right on red violations and revenues shot back up, especially in counties like Manatee.
Our current law and contracts like the one between Manatee County and Xerox only reinforce the suspicion that these devices aren't about red or yellow – but green. Hats off to Sheriff Steube and the MCSO for injecting some common sense into enforcement, but something's definitely wrong with an agreement when taxpayers have to shell out money to a private company when law enforcement does the right thing.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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