Legislators, lobbyists fight over red light cam reforms

TALLAHASSEE, Florida - While efforts to repeal the state's red light camera law appear dead again, the behind-the-scenes battle over possible reforms heats up in the final month of the 2013 session.

For the last year, 10 Investigates has exposed how some communities were using the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act of 2010 - the state's red light camera law - to ticket large numbers of safe drivers. Legislators promised to reform or repeal the law, but camera supporters have fought even the most basic driver protections.

"What you're seeing is they're trying to do anything they can to stymie the movement on these bills," State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said of camera supporters.

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While Brandes had originally filed an outright repeal bill of the red light camera (RLC) law, he acknowledges he may only negotiate a few reforms into to the law passed this year. But he says he's focused on common-sense "fixes" that would protect safe drivers as well as pedestrians.

"I think we can say you need to have a traffic engineering study done at any new intersections," Brandes said of one possible reform. "I think we can say you have to implement countermeasures before you implement red light cameras."

Brandes would also like to standardize how right turn RLC tickets are issued. In some communities, "rolling right" tickets make up a majority of citations, but some studies have indicated right turn on red violations are responsible for just 0.4% of all traffic crashes.

Among the most-aggressive communities on right turns that stand to lose the most revenue are Brooksville and Manatee Co.

The possible legislative reforms, which include countermeasures such as better light timing, better road lighting, and better road engineering, come after 10 Investigates pointed out many cameras were installed before more reliable safety measures were ever considered. National standards suggest only using camera enforcement at dangerous intersections after other measures are exhausted.

A recent legislative report also indicated many cities were using cameras for profits, and not to make intersections safer. Brandes wants to require cities to dedicate a portion of RLC revenues to safety programs.

AAA Auto Club has also come out in support of RLC reforms, sending Senator Brandes a letter earlier this year asking for more responsible enforcement:

"AAA recommends red light camera programs focus on intersections with a demonstrated pattern of violations and crashes that can be reduced through use of red light cameras," the group wrote, pointing out many communities never considered safety alternatives that may be more effective.

AAA also advocated requiring certified law enforcement officers to sign off on all citations, which only some cities and counties currently allow, and to require revenues to go toward safety improvements.

Reform Resistance

The efforts for reform have struggled largely because of resistance in the Senate. In addition to a few loyal lawmakers, red light camera providers have provided muscle, thanks to numerous paid lobbyists in Tallahassee. State records indicate American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the state's leader in red light camera technology, has spent more than a million dollars lobbying the legislature in recent years.

"There are probably 25-30 lobbyists that have been hired on this issue," Brandes speculated, although state records indicate the actual number is far fewer. "(The red light camera law) is probably one of the most heavily-lobbied industries right now in the state of Florida."

A 10 Investigates analysis of state-level campaign contributions also shows ATS has donated approximately $675,000 to candidates, committees, and state parties since 2010, when the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act was passed. In that time, Florida has issued more than $200 million in red light camera tickets.

Among the biggest recipients:

  • Florida Leadership Committee, a political action committee (PAC) associated with State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater ($20,000)
  • Innovate Florida PAC, a committee chaired by State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton ($10,000)
  • Treasure Coast Alliance, a PAC chaired by State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City ($10,000)
  • The Republican Party of Florida ($297,000) and Florida Democratic Party ($152,500), which can both spend money on candidates without disclosing whom.

But ATS and legislators alike say the campaign cash isn't "buying" anything.

"Just as our opponents support legislators that oppose our solutions," said American Traffic Solutions spokesperson Charles Territo, "ATS supports elected officials that support public safety."

"You want to talk about money in Tallahassee, talk about the power companies or the energy companies," Latvala said. "Red light camera companies are a drop in the bucket."

With several weeks left in the 2014 session, how the red light fight will shake out remains unpredictable. Brandes' red light camera bill, SB 144, has yet to receive a committee vote, but there has been weeks worth of discussion on possible amendments.

Amendment 638550, which would prohibit "rolling right" tickets under 15 mph if no crash or pedestrians nearby, was filed by Brandes, but failed on 4-4 vote. Voting "yay" on the proposed reform was Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, while among the "no" votes was Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.

Amendment 642454, which would allow a 0.5 second "grace" period for RLC tickets and direct funds to transportation and safety projects, was filed by Brandes, but failed on 5-3 vote. Again, Lee supported the amendment while Joyner did not.

The companion bill in the House would mandate a majority of local government's revenue went toward safety measures, which could include LED lighting in traffic signals, better-engineered roads, or additional law enforcement officers.

"I don't know how to fix where we are," Lee said. "The devil's always in the details, and in the rush to pass this (in 2010), there were a lot of things that weren't thought through very well, and now we're dealing with those issues."

Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.com.


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