One Woman’s Decade-Long Struggle for Safer Intersections in Florida

Melissa Wandall became the leading force for red-light camera enforcement in Florida after losing her husband Mark in 2003, while nine months pregnant. Photo:  Melissa Wandall
Melissa Wandall became the leading force for red-light camera enforcement in Florida after losing her husband Mark in 2003, while nine months pregnant. Photo: Melissa Wandall

In a unanimous decision earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court upheld legislation known as the “Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act,” allowing Florida municipalities to continue to use cameras to ticket motorists who run red lights.

It was a victory for safety in the country’s most dangerous state for walking. And it was thanks to one woman’s long struggle. For more than a decade, Melissa Wandall has led a campaign to prevent others from sharing her fate. She was nine months pregnant in 2003, when she lost her husband to a red-light runner in Bradenton.

Melissa didn’t want jail time for the woman who was responsible for Mark’s death (she was sentenced to community service and a $500 fine). “I didn’t want to be a broken mommy,” she said. “I wanted to take what we had and make sense of it and try to make it better for the next person who came along.”

With her baby daughter, Madisyn Grace (now 14) in tow, she started a one-woman lobbying campaign, often driving five hours to Tallahassee to press state lawmakers for action on red-light running.

“There’s no real roadway injury prevention urgency going on in our political system until you share numbers,” she said. “You have to keep cultivating these conversations.”

More than 5,000 pedestrians were killed in Florida between 2005 and 2014. An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study of 117 cities, a number of them in Florida, found that those with camera programs have 21 percent fewer fatal red-light-running crashes.

Florida's red-light camera legislation is named for Mark Wandall, who killed by a red-light runner in 2003. Photo: Melissa Wandall
Florida’s red-light camera legislation is named for Mark Wandall, who killed by a motorist in 2003. Photo: Melissa Wandall

It took six years of testimony and outreach, but in 2010, the Mark Wandall Act was passed.

Now more than 50 municipal governments across the state use red-light cameras. But each year since the law was adopted, there have been attempts to repeal it.

A 2016 appeals court ruling in favor of a motorist who challenged a ticket led municipalities across the state to suspend their camera programs. But the Supreme Court’s reversal should settle the matter.

Streetsblog asked Melissa if she thought Mark would be proud of what she has done. “I think he would be happy that I didn’t get lost in my grief,” she said.

Wandall was a director of sales for a hotel chain, and had no background in advocacy. Ultimately, she said, her campaign required educating people and exercising patience.

“My husband was an incredible man and he could not wait to be a father,” she said. “I never had any anger to the person who did it because it wouldn’t bring him back and wouldn’t help me raise my daughter.”

  • Jesse

    typo in the second photo caption:

    “Florida’s red-light camera legislation is named for Mark Wandall, who *was* killed by a motorist in 2003″

  • Mike

    Wow, so impressed by Melissa Wandall for her work and devotion to get this safety legislation passed and for not succumbing to anger and revenge. This country could use more people like her.

    We can do so much more to take traffic safety more seriously. The United States is one of the worst First World countries when it comes to traffic safety. https://goo.gl/images/naJHjd

    We need better driver training, stricter driver license tests, better enforcement that hold people accountable for killing or maiming others, and better roadway design standards and policies that do not simply aim to move as many cars as quickly as possible at the expense of pedestrians, drivers’ safety, and the quality of our public space.

  • Stephen Simac

    discouraging that she had to do this basically on her own as a single mother. Hard to understand why other victims, their relatives, state and local DOT, public health and safety reps and medical personnel weren’t more supportive. I was a lobby of one when I started the Broward (county, Florida) Bicycle Lobby in 1980. The state and 26 municipalities were happy to issue my declaration of the first Bicycle Day and Bike to Work Week that year, but trying to get them to implement any safety measures was an uphill battle. I gradually gained allies and a cohort of cyclists with some successes, before the sausage truck knocked me clear across the country to California *metaphorically speaking.

  • carpepm

    I’ve suggested red light cameras for my city, Macon, GA, through letters to the editor of our local newspaper and social media, unfortunately, not to the extent of this remarkable woman. The statistical evidence is available that proves they add safety to intersections. Our county of Bibb is 175+ law enforcement officers short. There is no way they can effectively police red light violators, and for 6 of the last 7 years we have had the highest pedestrian death rate in the state of Georgia. The year we weren’t number one, we were number two by one death! So sad.

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