The Struggle for Safer Streets in Florida

Red Light Camera

After losing her husband in a fateful pedestrian traffic accident in 2003, Melissa Wandall made a point to find some reason in the seemingly random act. She didn’t advocate for the imprisonment of the woman who ran a red light and killed Mark Wandall; instead, she sought ways of preventing further harm from happening in the future in her home state, Florida.

The perpetrator received a $500 fine and community service, and Ms. Wandall went on to advocate for the passage of a new law that would enforce the usage of red light cameras in the ticketing of drivers and thus change the fate of traffic violations in Florida. That law, named the “Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act,” gained the signature of the governor in 2010, and ever since then, the statute has been the subject of much debate. Certain politicians and residents have attempted to repeal the law almost every year since its passage but with little success – that is, until 2016, when a motorist prevailed in an appeals court ruling.

The Struggle

Prior to 2010, Ms. Wandall had been traveling around the state with her 14-year-old daughter, seeking better preventative measures with regard to red-light running. “There’s no real roadway injury prevention urgency going on in our political system until you share numbers,” she told Streets Blog USA. She continued, “You have to keep cultivating these conversations.” And so she traveled from municipality to municipality, until finally – after six years of touring and speaking – she celebrated the passage of the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act (“the Act”).

Court Rulings

Fifty municipalities implemented their own red-light camera programs following the passage of the Act. But after an appeals court sided with a motorist, red-light camera programs began to decline. The Florida Supreme Court then intervened, overturning the lower court’s order and re-instituting the law.

The Debate

Opponents of the Act argue that too much of the revenue garnered from the traffic tickets goes to the state and the vendors – such as the Colorado-based firm, Xerox – with very little money actually going to the municipality. Bradenton, one of the cities that suspended its red-light camera program, gained a mere $270,000, while the remaining $5.5 million went to the vendors and the state of Florida.

According to Bemis Smith, a councilwoman from Ward 4, this money comes directly out of taxpayers’ pockets. “We had these cameras for a long time and I never saw a significant improvement in accidents or a reduction in death, which there haven’t been a lot. I’m just going to take the position that these cameras can hurt people, too. One can argue they save lives, but there is no definitive evidence in Bradenton that that’s true,” she said.

Wandall’s Rejoinder

Wandall has taken issue with the decision to shut down these programs, which she believes save lives. After Miami chose to suspend its program, Wandall called it “negligent,” adding, “Their cameras are working. They have 7 out of 10 people receiving violations who are not residents of Miami so those politicians are not protecting their own, which is what they were put in place to do. And another 80 percent of the violators never did it again.”

Very Real Problem

Whichever side of the debate you fall on, it can’t be debated that there is a traffic safety issue in the state of Florida. A study, called Dangerous by Design 2016, found that, between 2005 and 2014 in the US, 46,149 people perished after being hit by a vehicle. In that same period, 5,000 people were killed in Florida after being struck by a vehicle. And in a list of the top 20 most dangerous cities, nine of them are located in Florida.

As for the effectiveness of the red-light cameras? Opponents say they notice no difference, but supporters point to a study, according to which red-light cameras have led to a 21 percent decrease in red-light-related fatalities. Ms. Wandall certainly believes the law is working: “If this bill was not working and lives were not being saved, I would go to Tallahassee today and ask for my husband’s name to be pulled off this bill.”

Sean Lally About Sean Lally

Sean Lally holds a BA in Philosophy from Temple University where he also studied theatre for several years. Between 2007 and 2017, he worked as a professional actor for several regional theater companies in Philadelphia, including the Arden Theatre Co., EgoPo Productions, Lantern Theater and the Bearded Ladies. In 2010, Sean co-founded Found Theater Company, an avant-garde artist collective with whom he first started to cultivate an identity as a writer.