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Eyes on intersections
Red-light cameras are coming, and a state legislator wants to allow more.
By Mike Brassfield, Times Staff Writer
Published March 3, 2008
A camera operated by American Traffic Solutions in Arnold, Mo., captures a car narrowly missing a bus after driving through a red light. To see the video, go to state.tampabay.com. The company will soon install cameras in Port Richey.
Driving around Clearwater last week, Peter Paulding was stunned by how many cars were running red lights.
"You've got this phenomenon called 'platooning' where cars keep going through the red light to keep opposing traffic from coming through," he said. "It's very common there."
Then he returned to his job as police chief of the Pensacola suburb of Gulf Breeze, one of two Florida cities ticketing drivers based on evidence from red-light cameras. His recommendation for west-central Florida: "You could use them."
We're about to get them.
The cameras are coming to the area beginning this month, and they'll almost certainly become more widespread if Florida legislators smooth the way by changing a state law this spring. This is plunging the state into a long-running nationwide debate: Are these devices just a bunch of cities' moneymaking schemes, a Big Brother-ish invasion of privacy? Or are they a way to restore sanity to intersections by fighting what officials call an "epidemic" of red-light running?
Some local cities like St. Petersburg are interested in posting the cameras at dangerous intersections, but they're waiting for legislators to clear up the law. Thanks to a loophole in that law, places like Clearwater, Hillsborough County, Temple Terrace and Port Richey are already bringing in the cameras or are strongly considering it.
"I wish they were already up," said police Lt. David Brown of Port Richey, which will install its first one in a couple of weeks along crash-prone U.S. 19. "People say it's a cash cow, but all we're trying to do is save lives. If you don't run the red light, you won't hear from us."
More than 300 cities in two dozen states use cameras to ticket drivers who blow through stoplights. Nearly a dozen companies that provide and operate the cameras get a cut of the ticket revenue. This arrangement gets a lot of criticism. But cities insist that partnerships with private firms are the only realistic way to get the cameras in the first place, and at no cost to taxpayers.
No insurance penalty
In Florida cities like Gulf Breeze and the Orlando suburb of Apopka, it works like this: Cameras on poles videotape and photograph the offending cars and their license plates, but not the drivers. Only three states allow face photos.
After a local police officer reviews the evidence on the camera vendor's secure Web site, the company sends the photos and a $125 ticket to the car owner. Drivers who don't believe they broke the law can go online and watch a 12-second video of the violation.
The tickets aren't considered moving violations and don't involve insurance points. Instead they're civil citations, more like parking tickets.
Officials who want the cameras say too many Floridians aren't taking stoplights seriously. They also point to polls showing strong support for the cameras.
State figures show that red-light running kills about 100 people and injures more than 6,000 in Florida each year. Hillsborough County, which will hold a public hearing Thursday on its plans to install the cameras, had nearly 450 red-light crashes last year, while its sheriff's deputies wrote nearly 3,800 tickets for red-light running.
Still, drivers like Tampa cabbie Charles Smalling have concerns about the cameras. He gave Hillsborough County commissioners a hypothetical situation: "I'm going to a light, and it starts to turn red. I put on the brakes, and a car behind me is coming. I can't go through that light - I'm going to get a ticket. But if I don't go through the light, I'll get hit from the rear."
The camera companies say their employees and traffic cops view the videos to weed out drivers who don't deserve tickets. Also, like any citation, these can be contested in traffic court.
Drivers who enter an intersection on a yellow light, are in a funeral procession or get stuck in a left-turn lane waiting for oncoming traffic to clear out don't get tickets, said Josh Weiss of American Traffic Solutions, which has camera deals with Apopka and Port Richey and is talking to Temple Terrace.
"It's about money, control and power over the average motorist," argues Henry Stowe of Sanford, an activist with the grass roots National Motorists Association. He notes that some researchers have seen a rise in rear-end collisions after the cameras go up, as drivers slam on the brakes at yellow or red lights. That's one reason why Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio rejected the idea.
Richard Redding, a traffic engineer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, reviewed a decade's worth of studies and found that they differ on the question of rear-end crashes. But they show about a 25 percent drop in deadlier T-bone collisions and "right-angle crashes," the kind that occur when someone who's making a left turn gets hit by an oncoming driver who doesn't stop on red. "At worst, the cameras are increasing fender benders and preventing the kinds of crashes that kill people and destroy lives," he said.
Banned on state roads
Florida bans the cameras from its rights-of-way on state roads, but some cities are getting around that by sticking them on private property near troublesome intersections. The law has stopped St. Petersburg from seeking the cameras because many of its major thoroughfares are state roads, said city traffic director Joe Kubicki.
Powerful lawmakers have opposed the cameras for years, calling them profit-driven government intrusions. But Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, is sponsoring a bill that would allow the cameras on state land, and he thinks it will prevail this time. Cities like Orlando, Jacksonville and Sarasota are watching.
"There's no expectation of privacy when you're in a vehicle on a public highway," he said. "We take pictures of toll booth violators, don't we?"