Other Views from Those in the Know
With 25 years in Florida law enforcement and a lobbyist
The Red Light Camera Problem in Florida and Two Solutions
Local officials and the companies that sell and operate them love red light cameras, which are not called cameras in the law. Nearly everyone else, not so much.
Why? Is Florida a hotbed of red light runners crashing into others? If you look at our traffic crash data over the past several years, you'll see that is not the case.
My background is law enforcement. I worked for two years as a Florida deputy sheriff and the remaining 23 years of my 25-year career with the Florida Highway Patrol, where I worked as a trooper, traffic homicide investigator, and squad sergeant, and retired as an investigations lieutenant. I currently operate a small lobbying firm in Tallahassee that specializes in issues involving liberty.
According to our Department of Highway Safety, red light running as a cause is around 2 to 3 percent of all crashes. One thing you will never see in any news story about the devices is how many red light running crashes are taking place to justify the need for these automated for-profit law enforcement devices. (Like the Florida Legislature, I don't call them red light cameras either.)
Why didn't the Legislature call them red light cameras? It is simple really. Running a red light is a traffic infraction, as is speeding and passing a stopped school bus. It just so happens one automated for-profit company has devices for these other infractions. Calling the devices red light cameras would limit their use. Calling them traffic infraction detectors means they can enforce all of these laws and any other infractions.
Why do I call them automated for-profit law enforcement devices? The fact they are automated is inarguable. The fact they are for-profit is likewise inarguable, as they are owned and operated by for-profit companies. Perhaps you read your local paper and believe they’re only meant for safety.
You may have read assertions like the St. Petersburg transportation director claiming a 60 percent reduction in red light "related" crashes, or a Palatka police sergeant claiming that a majority of their intersection crashes are caused by red light running. Or you may have read that the Hallandale Beach mayor claims a huge number of “violations.”
However, when crash reports, Department of Transportation crash data, and city records were reviewed, a different picture emerges.
In St. Petersburg, I asked for the data used to make the 60 percent reduction claim. I received 38 crash reports from a three-year period. Each involved red light running as the cause. When I broke them down by year, I found the first year had 6, the next one had 12, and the third one had 10. After the use of the automated for-profit devices, the number remained at 10. This caused the average to increase from 9.3 to 10, a 7 percent increase.
In Palatka, I reviewed DOT crash data for intersection crashes; it also included unincorporated areas. I learned the main causes of crashes were failure to yield and careless driving -- something I already knew after 25 years of Florida law enforcement experience. As with crashes throughout Florida, red light running was well down the list.
In Hallandale Beach, using the city's own records (available online), I found the mayor's claim of 321 violations was actually 172. I also determined that in 2011 the city spent more on automated for-profit enforcement than it took in, for a net loss to the taxpayer.
My study of several cities throughout Florida showed that automated for-profit law enforcement has failed to make any significant reduction in crashes. Is that not the sole reason to use it? Nearly without exception, local officials in Florida claim they use automated for-profit law enforcement for safety, not revenue. Safety is not measured in the number of "violations," which inevitably include far more of the less hazardous right turns than the very hazardous straight-through violations.
(Unlike any city using automated for-profit law enforcement, I publish the crash data I used to perform an analysis. If you'd like to examine my data, Google the term "Red light camera reference page.")
My conclusions are supported by really good evidence. All one need do is go to YouTube and you can find crash after crash all caught on camera – red light camera. If the devices worked, there would eventually be no crashes to capture.
What happens when we turn law enforcement into a for-profit operation?
Most would compare it to ticket quotas, which are illegal in Florida. The thought behind this law was that officers would write questionable tickets to increase revenue, so the Legislature made it unlawful for an agency to impose a ticket quota.
What we have with automated for-profit devices are non-Florida companies raking in millions. The way the system works is that the data (evidence) goes from the company's device to the company for processing. It is then sent to the local police. The company has a huge financial interest in these cases and no oversight to prevent misconduct.
Another problem in the for-profit aspect of the system is that intersections seeing a relatively high number of red light running crashes for low traffic volume may not receive a device. I found in my review of Apopka that the worst intersection there for red light running crashes (with only 7 in seven years) did not receive a device, while three intersections that had never had a red light running crash received a device. While this seems odd, device placement in most Florida cities is determined by the for-profit company via "surveys." If they do not think they will get enough "violations," then they will not place a device there. This is in direct conflict with the professed "safety" motivation.
A third for-profit issue is the financial motivation of the for-profit company, which has first view of any evidence and often maintains the devices. Unlike police speed-measuring equipment that must be certified by a third party every six months, automated for-profit devices are never tested for accuracy by a third party. Older folks like me call this the fox guarding the hen house.
Having spoken to drivers involved in these crashes while I worked as a Florida trooper, what I found was that these drivers were either inattentive (and this was before everyone had a cell phone) or impaired. One of the first prosecutable fatal crashes I worked involved a drunk driver that failed to slow for a light that had been red for several seconds. The nature of these crashes is that they are completely unpredictable and unpreventable. The DOT crash data I looked at showed this. In Hallandale Beach, one of the two automated for-profit intersections saw a reduction of four red light running crashes after device use. The other one also saw a reduction of four a few years earlier without device use.
Proponents of automated for-profit law enforcement say there is a simple solution -- just don't run the light. While this sounds like a great idea, in actuality it is not the case, and this is due solely to the wording of the law. I researched news stories and found numerous cases where an innocent party was ticketed -- and then had the burden of proof to prove their innocence due to the law's wording.
A couple of examples: A vehicle owner in Orlando was "cropped in" due to the automated for-profit company making an error. The city's video clearly showed his vehicle did not run the light. He was ignored until he went to the media. The ticket was subsequently dismissed.
A couple in Manatee County had their moped in their garage when a motorcycle ran a light in Tampa. An officer there guessed at the tag and the couple received the ticket. Again, media involvement was used for them to clear themselves.
The way in which the law is worded, if a vehicle owner gets a ticket in the mail, it is the owner, not the charging agency, that must prove who broke the law. If the owner ignores the ticket, they will lose their license. This has repercussions for innocent people in that if an owner in one part of the state is ticketed they must drive hundreds of miles at a huge cost to contest the ticket. The license suspension actually happened to a vehicle owner in the Jacksonville area. He received a ticket from a city in South Florida and since he had never been there, he ignored it.
I'll note this cannot happen when a police officer makes a lawful traffic stop and issues a ticket. No, we won't ticket everyone that runs a light this way, but we also do not catch every murderer or thief. Do we really wish to live in a police state where all actions are monitored 24/7?
I wrote a piece recently that we could use automated for-profit devices outside of bars, since DUI causes about 25 percent of our fatal crashes here. Domestic violence in Florida kills about four times as many people as do red light running. Should we then place cameras in every home?
Next, there is a huge problem with accuracy of these devices. If you watch one, you'll likely see it flash for no reason when no traffic is moving. Recently while in Tallahassee, I watched one vehicle roll through on a right turn with no flash. The next vehicle several seconds later was photographed (flashed) before it got to the intersection, where it stopped. The city auditor in a 2012 report found Tallahassee's system activated in error 80 percent of the time. If we had a police officer that made unlawful arrests eight out of 10 times, they would be fired for failing to perform job duties.
The legal issues with the devices are numerous. America was founded on several legal principles that are found in our Bill of Rights -- the first 10 amendments to our U.S. Constitution. These include:
-- The right of having the government, not you, prove your guilt. This came to be after our founders had witnessed the King of England haul people into court and compel confessions. Doing so is a hallmark of a tyrannical government.
-- The right of having witnesses in court. Again in England, Sir Walter Raleigh was executed based upon testimony of someone that was not even in court.
-- The right to reasonable fines and punishment. The law is worded so as to create a path of least resistance to compel people to just pay tickets. You have two markedly different punishments for the same behavior. People ticketed by officers run the same lights, yet pay about $100 more, and are subject to points on their license and an auto insurance premium increase.
-- The right to a hearing, or due process. It is impossible to go to court on the mailed ticket. An owner must fail to pay it and then get a second more expensive ticket just to go to court.
What I find very troubling is the corruption of local officials due to the amount of money involved. When automated for-profit devices are put up to a public vote, over 90 percent of the time they are voted against.
So in summary, I have identified at least five significant problems:
The devices do not (and cannot) reduce the red light running crash rate in Florida or anywhere. Red light running, like rear-end crashes, is an inevitable outcome of inattentive or impaired driving.
The for-profit aspect of the law has several detrimental issues, with a notable one being devices are not always used where the most red light running crashes take place.
The system allows for the wrong person to be ticketed, and that person is then required to prove his or her innocence, which has not always worked in Florida without media involvement.
The devices are inaccurate. They activate when no traffic is moving, and a city auditor has documented an 80 percent error rate in the activations.
The law itself contains several provisions that are inconsistent with American justice.
The best solution is to ban these devices. However, this is usually viewed as an extreme measure by the well-funded device lobby and the small army of taxpayer-funded local officials who march to Tallahassee to defend automated for-profit devices -- or more accurately, their revenue from the devices.
As one of just two liberty-based lobbyists, I'm faced with a true David vs. Goliath battle here. But the outcome will eventually be the same as with David, once the public understands the issues with automated for-profit law enforcement.
There are two middle-ground solutions.
If safety is the goal, one middle-ground solution would require yellow light timing using Federal Highway Administration guidelines on yellow intervals. They must be set at least long enough for the 85th percentile approach speeds of vehicles. When the actual 85th percentile speeds are not known, engineers are to use the posted limit plus 10 mph for the speed factor in the equation to compensate for the fact that most speed limits are posted below the safety-optimum 85th percentile speeds.
The guidelines suggest adding another 0.5 seconds where there is a significant population of older drivers -- which is true almost everywhere in Florida. What this means in simpler terms is to make allowances for the several types of vehicles and drivers on our roads.
Trucks cannot stop as quickly as sports cars. The elderly do not react as quickly as the young, yet all have the same amount of time to stop. Unlike automated for-profit law enforcement, where this has been applied the red light running rates have dropped significantly.
The other middle-ground solution is to just restore the rights the law has destroyed. This is the idea behind the proposed Florida Motorist Rights Restoration Act, which I first authored in 2011. The legislation does not ban the devices, but instead places them on a level playing field with other moving violations, such as failure to yield or careless driving. The act requires three things: (1) that the charging agency and not the vehicle owner prove who broke the law, (2) that anyone who processed evidence or made a charging decision be in court, and (3) that a hearing be made available after a ticket is mailed, with no surcharge applied.
No law is ever perfect. The law dealing with automated for-profit enforcement was a bad idea and Floridians have paid the price for it for too long. Let's fix this problem in 2013 by changing the yellow light timing to proper lengths and restoring the rights of motorists. It is a win for the people and a win for constitutional law enforcement.
Paul Henry had a 25-year career in Florida law enforcement, including 23 years with the Florida Highway Patrol. He now operates a small lobbying firm in Tallahassee specializing in liberty issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.
© Florida Voices
Published Wednesday, November 28, 2012