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State lawmakers look to put brakes on red light cameras

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image Several cars run a red light at Brandon Town Center and Brandon Boulevard in this video, one of four “Red-Light Runners” videos post on YouTube by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office showing local drivers ignoring red lights.

Bills would make it easier to contest a citation and ban tickets for making a right on red.

By Kevin Brady

Red light cameras are a little like Justin Bieber. You’re either a true believer or think the pint-sized warbler is the spawn of Satan.

But relief may be on the way for those who see red when it comes to the controversial cameras. Bills filed last month in the Florida legislature will make it easier for drivers hit with a fine to contest the citation.

The bills would also eliminate tickets for drivers who make a right on red. Hillsborough County does not issue citations for making a right on red, all citations are reviewed by a Hillsborough County sheriff before they are sent out and deputies make allowances for drivers who make legal right turns on red, but the policy is far from uniform across the state.

“I think the red light cameras are a good idea because some local intersections are really bad,” said Maryann Flower, a Brandon resident. “But they really should tweak them a little. Perhaps those who review the cameras for citations need to take into consideration what the driver is facing, especially when it comes to making rights on red.”

Motorists might avoid getting nabbed on the scene after running a red light but the law makes sure they pay up with a $158 fine.  Of that, $75 goes to the county or city where the violation occurred with the remainder going to the state. The fine increases to $264 if not paid within 30 days. No points are assessed on a driver’s license and motorists can appeal the tickets in traffic court.

County drivers have been navigating red light cameras since Dec. 29, 2009 when the cameras were installed at six county intersections including Brandon Town Center and Brandon Boulevard and Bloomingdale Avenue and Bell Shoals Road. Cameras also monitor traffic at Sligh and Habana avenues, Waters Avenue at Dale Mabry Highway and Anderson Road and Fletcher Avenue and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. Tampa uses the cameras to catch red-light runners at 24 intersections in the city.

The company that installed the cameras — American Traffic Solutions, in Hillsborough County — is paid $4,750 per month, per camera. The company maintains 10 cameras at the six intersections. 

The number of tickets issued for running red lights at the entrance to the Westfield Brandon mall increased 44 percent in the first six months of 2012, the last period for which figures are available. Red-light violations at the intersection of Bloomingdale Avenue and Bell Shoals increased by 24 percent over the same time period.

Countywide, red light citations at the six county intersections with cameras went up by almost 2,000 when compared with the first six months of 2011, according to figures from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. Citations fell in the previous year. The county issued 2,384 fewer citations in 2011 compared with 2010, the first year the cameras went operational, records show.

In all, 21 states and more than 50 Florida counties and cities use the cameras. Statewide, 404 intersections are equipped with red light cameras, according to Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

While use of the cameras has increased so has the volume of criticism. Last month, Bill Foster, St. Petersburg’s mayor and Ken Burke, Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court, called for a citation moratorium saying the entire process has serious problems including citations for owners who may not be driving the car when its license plate is snapped by the cameras. By the time those vehicle owners are aware of the citation, the cost of the ticket has jumped to $264, critics say.

“The cameras do something law enforcement cannot do and that is provide 24-hour, 365-day-a-year coverage,” said Cpl. Troy Morgan, who oversees the sheriff’s office’s red-light camera program. The program doesn’t cost taxpayers,” Morgan said. “It is paid for by those who run the red lights; these are the people who fund the program.”

“You can go the sheriff’s office website and watch the videos of drivers running red lights and judge for yourself,” he said. “I think any reasonable person would see the need for the cameras after watching these videos.”

Detractors say the cameras make intersections more dangerous, encouraging some drivers to rush while others slam on the breaks at the first sign of a yellow light for fear of a ticket. A report from the Florida Highway Patrol earlier this year contradicts those claims.

“The most common outcome since the installation of red light cameras is a decrease in traffic crashes,” said the report, released earlier this year. “Forty-three percent (of the agencies overseeing the cameras) noticed a reduction in side-impact crashes, with 41 percent experiencing a reduction in rear-end crashes, while 56 percent of the agencies experienced a total reduction in crashes at red light camera intersections,” concluded the report.

While 999,929 citations were issued across Florida during the report’s sampling period – July 2011 to June 2012 – only 20,064 drivers decided to challenge the tickets in court. However, more than 70 percent of those challenges were successful with 14,065 citations dismissed.

Some drivers don’t have much ground for appeal though.

“I talked to one driver cited multiple times at Brandon Town Center and she just didn’t understand it,” Morgan continued. “I eventually had to advise her to take another route.”  

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