Tallahassee, Florida - A bill to repeal red light cameras in Florida passes its first test at the state Capitol.
A House committee narrowly passed the bill 10 - 8 on Thursday.
Bill sponsors Reps. Daphne Campbell and Carlos Trujillo argued red light cameras are really about making money for government, rather than increasing traffic safety. They also questioned the accuracy of studies showing red light cameras reduce crashes and injuries.
Campbell also contended that local governments are deliberately placing red light cameras in low-income areas to target poor and elderly people.
Rep. Ed Hooper pressed Campbell on that allegation, asking her to show the committee evidence that poor and elderly people are targeted.
Rep. Campbell: "I have a lot of emails. I have people come to my office. When I was going for my re-election, every door I knocked, that's the only complaint, the red light cameras."
Rep. Hooper: "My question was documented evidence. Everybody comes into my office that gets a ticket thinks they're being targeted. Do you have any documented evidence that you can exhibit with us or explain to us that shows that cities make decisions on where to locate these cameras based on the elderly and low-income population?"
Rep. Campbell: "We have petitions. We have a lot of stuff so I could just get it to you later but not right now. I didn't bring them with me."
Rep. Hooper: "Representative, obviously you're not going to answer the question because there is no documentation."
Supporters of red light cameras said the cameras are saving lives in Florida.
Major Chris Connell pointed to one of the busiest intersections in Tallahassee and said before cameras were installed there three years ago, police recorded more than 400 red light runners in a 16-hour period.
Now the intersection has an average of 15 violations in a 24-hour period and fewer crashes. Connell said crashes at 19 red-light camera intersections have dropped 22 percent over three years.
"Red light cameras save lives. This is a proven fact with our agencies throughout the state reporting a significant reduction in crashes and violations after cameras have been installed. This tells us that driving habits significantly improve with the installation of the cameras."
Capt. Michael Fewless, representing the Florida Sheriffs Association, told the committee his son was ticketed by a red light camera and the $158 ticket changed his driving behavior.
"You know what, I would write a $158 check if that would stop my son from running red lights and it has. It's changed his behavior. What I didn't have to do was I did not have to go to a funeral and I am so happy for that. I am so thankful this law is in place."
Rep. Hooper of Clearwater, a retired firefighter, said he responded to too many crashes during his career where drivers were killed by red-light runners. He bristled at testimony from opponents of red light cameras who said the tickets were hurting people.
"We heard testimony that these tickets are hurting citizens. Hurting citizens. Every ticket hurts. This just happens to be one of the least expensive. What really hurts citizens is when you are minding the laws of this state and you are traveling through an intersection with a green signal and someone who doesn't obey the law T-bones you in the driver's door and you die, or your family member dies or your child dies. That's what's hurting citizens."
Police Chief Rick Sloan of Haines City, Florida echoed that point. He said the red light camera program in Haines City recorded 6,000 tickets in its first month, but now that's dropped to about 1,700 tickets a month.
"I think it's obvious that it does change people's driving behaviors and I think it is obvious that it also helps to save lives and prevent people from having serious injuries."
Red light cameras issued about a million tickets in Florida last year. About 20,000 were challenged in court and 70 percent of those were dismissed.
Each ticket from a red light camera costs $158. Last year those tickets generated $97 million statewide. Local governments received $46 million of that total and the state collected $51 million.
Some of that cash supports trauma centers across Florida, as well as the Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund.
Rep. Lake Ray of Jacksonville said he thinks red light cameras are not about increasing safety.
"It's about money... I'm willing to put my $5 on the table or whatever I have to for helping the trauma centers and other important medical services that are provided from funds that come from this."
Rep. Doug Broxton of Midway said he was not convinced that red light cameras change people's driving behavior.
"I don't believe that necessarily will change behavior. I believe you should have a right to face your accuser and this is the reason that I will vote for this bill."
The bill is on a fast track in the House. It faces a tougher road in the Senate.
Seventy-one jurisdictions operate red light camera programs in Florida. The Tampa program raised $2.3 million last year.