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    Cameras may catch red-light runners

    A pilot program could put equipment at intersections to capture images of those running red lights, surprising drivers with tickets in their mailboxes.

    By ANDREW MEACHAM

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2001


    It's a Sunday night, late. You're returning from a weekend road trip. You're tired.

    Approaching a yellow light blocks from home, you slow down, check left and right, and see no one. Near the intersection, there's an unfamiliar sign about "infraction detectors."

    The light turns red just before you cruise through it anyway. You check the rear-view mirror and see only asphalt. The adrenaline rush dissolves. You forget the whole thing.

    About a week later, you receive a $50 ticket in the mail, along with three photographs. The first shows your car approaching the intersection but still behind the stop bar. The light is red. The second image zeroes in on your license plate. The third photo shows your car in the middle of the intersection beneath the red traffic signal.

    It turns out that the new sign was a warning that these infraction detectors, automated cameras really, had been mounted in that intersection and that red-light violators would be subject to fines.

    Companion bills in the Legislature, introduced by Sens. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, and Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, would allow municipalities in Pinellas, Broward and Palm Beach counties to try out this technology, already in place in 40 U.S. communities.

    The pilot project authorizes cities to use the cameras and levy fines up to $100. Advocates point to Florida's seventh-place ranking nationwide for deaths resulting from red-light violations.

    Angelo Rao, St. Petersburg's assistant director for engineering, stormwater and transportation, in recent months has asked neighborhoods to support infraction detectors. He has cited the city's 18 deaths between 1992 and 1998 from red-light violations.

    Only Phoenix, Memphis, Tenn., and Mesa, Ariz., have higher fatality rates.

    "St. Petersburg stands out like a sore thumb," said Richard Retting, a senior transportation engineer for the National Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which compiled the figures using federal traffic and census data.

    "It's not unusual (in St. Petersburg) to see someone go through a light five seconds after it's turned red, which, for me, is stunning," Rettging said. Most traffic deaths result from side-impact collisions, he said.

    One in three people claims to know someone who has been injured or killed in a crash caused by red-light running, according to the Federal Highway Administration -- data similar to the percentage of people who know someone injured or killed by a drunken driver. Yet 56 percent of Americans admit that they sometimes run red lights.

    At least three other Pinellas cities would be interested in such a project.

    "I think it's a good idea," said Pinellas Park Traffic Director Tom Nicholls. "We have a couple of intersections where they could definitely be of some use."

    Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor said that traffic officials there have followed infractions detectors closely in other states and would seriously consider their use.

    Ray Kaminskas, St. Pete Beach's police chief, said his city definitely would be interested in participating. "A lot of citizens from up North have been asking about (cameras)," he said. "I keep explaining to them that, based on present laws, we cannot install them at intersections."

    If a city agrees to participate in the pilot project, Rao said rectangles of magnetic wire (called "loops" despite their shape) would be placed under the asphalt on the approaches to one or more problem intersections. The wire allows a control box to read vehicle speed.

    Another box mounted 14 feet above the street houses four cameras. This box sits 55 to 65 feet from the stop bar, facing the intersection.

    A computer in the control panel calculates an approaching vehicle's speed against the timing of the traffic signal and predicts who will run a red light. The system tacks on an additional two-tenths of a second "grace period" before it begins taking pictures, said Ian Cardozo, who directs automated enforcement systems for Peek Traffic Inc.

    The Sarasota company is conducting a trial run there with cameras on 17th Street facing the intersection with Lockwood Ridge Road.

    "What I like about it is that only violators are photographed," Rao said. The system in Sarasota is photographing 30 violations a day from its single approach on 17th Street. Offenders are not being ticketed. A trial run, Rao said, could start with five to 10 of the deadliest intersections, which for St. Petersburg would include Fourth Street and Gandy Boulevard; and 38th Avenue N at 34th and 49th streets.

    The wire loops and control boxes could be installed in up to 30 locations. Boxes containing the cameras, which are portable, could be moved from place to place and connected with infrastructure already installed.

    St. Petersburg's Council of Neighborhood Associations in March passed a resolution supporting the idea, but Ed Carlson's Jungle Terrace neighborhood was among the minority of CONA affiliates that voted down automated infraction detectors.

    "It just reeks too much of 1984," Carlson said, referring to George Orwell's classic novel about government as omnipresent Big Brother. "The next thing you know, you'll have them on every corner for jaywalkers and whatever else," said Carlson, 59, a dentist.

    Among other things, Jungle Terrace neighbors objected that the cameras would not capture the identity of the driver.

    The Red Light Safety Act now in the Florida Senate allows owners of vehicles driven by another person to file an affidavit listing the name, address, and driver's license number of the person who had custody of the car, or to include a police report if the car has been stolen.

    Jim Echols, also of Jungle Terrace, is unimpressed by that provision. "That means you've got to tell on your mom, or your sister or your neighbor, because you let your mom borrow your car," said Echols, a Walgreens manager.

    The cost of the systems, which can reach $100,000 per camera, also turns off neighbors. Vendors frequently install the devices at no charge in exchange for a percentage of fines generated -- typically one-quarter to one-third, Rao said.

    In the 40 locations where they are in use, cameras have led to a 40 percent drop in red-light infractions, said Retting of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The institute is finishing a study that also will determine how much infraction detectors have reduced deaths related to red-light violations.

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