Libertarians have mobilized this year against perceived government over-reach. Some of the causes seem excessive: opposition to seatbelt laws and carbon monoxide detectors in rental buildings.
But sometimes the libertarians get it right. And there’s a good case that they have gotten it right in their latest cause: the campaign against red light cameras.
These are cameras which are attached to the lights at a traffic intersection. They photograph the cars that pass through when the light is illuminated and allow for tickets to be issued to the violators. In theory this is so traffic monitoring can occur 24/7 but these cameras might not be the most effective way to reduce traffic violations.
In Florida, a coalition of libertarians, Ron Paul fans, Tea Partiers, and even civil rights advocates has joined to oppose these devices. They argue that cameras are not an especially effective way to enhance safety. They point to data that suggests that red light infractions can be better reduced simply by increasing the length of time the yellow light is illuminated. They suggest with much force that the cameras are intended, not to protect motorists, but to raise revenue for local governments.
On April 12th, a series of anti-red light camera protests were held in intersections across Florida: in Orlando, Cocoa Beach, Tampa, and Tallahassee.
Henry Bentley is the main organizer and founder of the website BanTheCams.org, a ground zero for red light camera opponents. The website has been campaigning against the cameras since February of 2010 and Bentley himself has been protesting since 2010 as well:
“One year and three weeks ago [interviewed on April 12, 2011] I organized my first protest. It consisted of me and my daughter. An hour later, another guy calls me and joins me, then the news media showed up.”
Bentley explained that the issue first got the interest of some members of the Florida Libertarian Party, and that from there it came under to the attention of Campaign for Liberty (Also known as C4L). Campaign for Liberty is the 501(c)4 outgrowth of Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign:
“A month ago we organized another statewide protest. We got in touch with the Libertarian Party. Through the Libertarian Party, Campaign for Liberty contacted me.”
That was when everything changed: “With Campaign for Liberty we also picked up four lobbyists. I would say Campaign for Liberty has been a tremendous shot in the arm to our efforts.”
The Libertarian Party took a lead in organizing the actual April 12th protests. Libertarian Adrian Wyllie described how the issue crossed ideological boundaries:
“Someone just put an idea out there on Facebook, and all these groups just gravitated towards it.” As Adrian put it: “People don’t like [the] camera.”
Opponents of red light cameras want to see the success of several different pieces of legislation. Florida House Bill 4087 and Florida Senate Bill 672 would both effectively ban red light cameras. They also would like to see success for House Bill 149 which would extend yellow light time.
Campaign for Liberty lobbyist John Hallman spoke about how the law designed to ban the cameras was most likely to progress.
“Expectations are that it will pass in the House, the Senate is where we are having the more difficult time. The Senators like the revenue source that comes from these red light infractions.”
Researchers at the University of South Florida have produced several papers arguing that extended yellow lights do more for safety than red light cameras.
Dr. Etienne Pracht explains:
It is important for the public at large and federal, state, and local officials to understand that motor vehicle safety is advanced through evidence-based methods. Attempts to generate revenue through traffic citations are directly contrary to public safety since infractions are increased by improper roadway engineering, creating hazards and expense for the public
Dr. Barbara Langland-Orban also believes the evidence used to support the cameras is weak:
[the] Federal Highway Administration does advocate for cameras; however, they use unscientific research to conclude cameras are effective. Their own study excluded the cost of fatal crashes (which increased after camera use), in order to claim a minor economic benefit from camera use.
On the pro-camera side, Florida’s Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office tells FrumForum that since the introduction of the cameras, accidents have been reduced from 395 in 2008 to 270 in 2010. But anti-camera activists frequently cite the real world example of the state of Georgia, where some news reports claim that just extending the yellow light time reduced infractions by 80%.
What’s most exciting about the Florida debate is that it’s being carried on with credible evidence to support ideological convictions. Opposition to the cameras may originate in libertarian principle, but if the opposition prevails, it will prevail with arguments intended to be convincing to all.
Some of these libertarian efforts may be more useful at fostering good government than others, but if they are able to achieve real success on the issue of red light cameras, then there will be evidence that the tea party movement can be a force for legislative good and good public policy.
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