WASHINGTON — Florida drivers who were caught by red-light cameras paid more than $100 million in traffic fines last year. But whether the cameras made Florida’s roads safer — or just swelled state and city coffers — is an open question.
“Three years ago, these red-light cameras were pitched as safety devices,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who has proposed a state ban on the cameras. “Instead, they’ve been a backdoor tax increase.”
A 2012 audit in St. Petersburg showed the number of dangerous side-impact collisions did decrease at intersections where the red-light cameras had been installed. However, rear-end collisions actually increased at those intersections, as more drivers stopped short to avoid violations.
In addition to identifying drivers who run through a red light, the cameras tag those who fail to come to a full and complete stop before turning right on red.
Communities in 24 states and the District of Columbia have at least one red-light camera, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety recently counted more than 500 communities with the cameras.
Overall, people like them: In a 2011 poll conducted by the insurance institute, two-thirds of drivers in 14 big cities with cameras expressed support for them. And last November, voters in Longview, Wash., and Pohatcong, N.J., rejected ballot measures to remove the cameras.
Cameras that catch drivers who violate red-light laws are far more popular than cameras that catch speeders. Only eight states and the District of Columbia use speeding cameras, and a dozen states have enacted laws banning them.
Nevertheless, resistance to red-light cameras may be growing. Nine states already prohibit them, and lawmakers in Ohio are considering a ban, even though the cameras generated $16 million for Ohio cities last year.
Lawmakers in Iowa, New Jersey and Colorado also considered turning off the cameras this year, though those efforts fell short.
“The state shouldn’t be counting on people to violate laws in order to pad their budgets,” Brandes said.
One of the main stumbling blocks in the states that considered and rejected bans this year was opposition from cities receiving money from them. Tickets generally cost drivers about $100, according to data from the Governors Highway Safety Association. California has the nation’s highest red-light fine at $490 per violation. Oregon is second-highest with a $260 fine, while Washinton is third-highest at $250.
“They are used to having that money in their budget,” said Iowa state Rep. Walt Rogers, a Republican who has tried for the last two years to pass legislation to limit the cameras. Last year, his proposal to require a traffic study at an intersection before installing a red-light camera failed to get out of committee. His ban bill made it out of the House in 2012, but died in the Senate.
State legislation typically sets the ground rules for the use of the cameras, and then cities negotiate the specifics of the deal with the camera vendors.