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As red light cameras grow more popular, an academic dispute at USF simmers

ST. PETERSBURG — An academic spat among University of South Florida researchers is muddying the debate about the growing use of red light cameras at Tampa Bay area intersections.

USF's College of Public Health concluded that instead of improving safety, the cameras actually make intersections more dangerous. Further, its study said, the cameras give insurance companies a reason to jack up rates for those who get tickets.

On the other side of the argument is Ed Mierzejewski, director of USF's Center for Urban Transportation Research. He calls the cameras an effective way to reduce crashes, and has been on a one-man crusade to debunk the public health college's 2008 study.

He's written letters to academic journals and newspapers discrediting the research, and contacted city officials to vouch for the cameras, all but undermining the USF study.

"I have a problem with people thinking it was my organization that was having all these negative things to say about red light cameras," Mierzejewski said. "I didn't want people to confuse this with the collective wisdom of the university."

Mierzejewski instead has set off an internal debate among USF academics that calls into question the objectivity of the university's research while revealing how easy it is to cast doubt on academic analysis.

"Mr. Mierzejewski has been on a tirade," said the study's lead researcher, Barbara Langland-Orban, in a December e-mail to the college's dean. "What can be done?"

As the two camps from the same university clash, the use of red light cameras to identify and ticket violators in the bay area continues to grow. Hillsborough County, Brooksville, Clearwater, Oldsmar, Port Richey and St. Petersburg have approved their use or ordered more of them since this debate among colleagues began.

• • •

The genesis of USF's College of Public Health's research on red light cameras was in 2005. Trauma center hospitals, facing budget cuts, were in search of revenue. They had been approached by vendors of red light cameras to support bills in the Legislature that would make them legal in the state. In exchange, they'd get a cut of the money, according to the researchers.

USF decided to study whether the cameras made streets safer, said Etienne Pracht, an associate professor of health policy and management who, along with Langland-Orban and John T. Large, did the research.

The three surveyed several major studies of red light cameras, reviewed them, wrote a paper and sent it to the Florida Public Health Review. The paper was reviewed by independent researchers and published in 2008.

While hardly groundbreaking, the survey did objectively reflect the credible literature on red light cameras, Pracht said.

One such study was by the Urban Transit Institute at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. It compiled 57 months of before-and-after data that showed red light cameras were associated with a 40 percent increase in accident rates and no decrease in severe crashes. Two other studies the researchers deemed reliable showed crashes climbed after cameras were installed.

And USF researchers determined that studies supporting cameras used flawed methods. One oft-cited study was financed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in 2002. It concluded that camera enforcement "generally reduces violations by an estimated 40 percent to 50 percent." In addition, injury crashes, including rear-end collisions "were reduced by 25 percent to 30 percent as a result of camera enforcement."

Pracht and Langland-Orban said that the institute's study, like most that show cameras are effective, didn't use scientific methods. For instance, the study looked at the crash rates of 11 intersections in Oxnard, Calif., with cameras, then included those results with the results from intersections that didn't have cameras.

Mixing the two was akin to testing the effects of a drug on 11 people, then merging their results with others who didn't take it, said Langland-Orban.

Relying on information about cameras from insurance companies is ill advised, the USF study concluded, because insurers can profit if tickets are moving violations because they can charge higher premiums.

Yet it's this same insurance industry analysis that the St. Petersburg City Council was given by Joe Kubicki, the city's director of transportation and parking.

Kubicki said he used the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study because it was readily available.

"There's not a lot of statistics out there on this," Kubicki said. "I didn't make it a research paper."

He didn't know about the conflicting USF study until after the council's April 1 approval. He said he saw it a day later, but didn't think much of it. His peers had reviewed it and discounted it, he said, so he did, too.

• • •

One opinion that Kubicki did consider was Mierzejewski's.

He said he was more apt to trust Mierzejewski's opinion because he was affiliated with the Center for Urban Transportation Research, a respected transportation think tank.

In a recent interview, Mierzejewski said he's never researched red light cameras himself. The last study the center did on it was in 1998.

When asked how he reached his research conclusions, he replied: "Looking up stuff on Google and comparing what I find."

He alleges the USF study cherry-picked the research it wanted, ignoring "many studies" that support red light cameras. Instead, the study cites "contrary" research and the National Motorists Association, a drivers' rights association that represents scofflaws and is "not exactly a credible source," he wrote in an e-mail to the Brooksville police chief when the city was considering the cameras.

Pracht and Langland-Orban said Mierzejewski played up the citation of the motorist association to discredit the rest of their research.

"He's 100 percent wrong in what he writes," Langland-Orban said. "If he actually believed that we had misrepresented findings or used contrary studies to mislead the public, he should file a complaint against us in the school's research office and they would review it."

Mierzejewski hasn't done that, and instead, it's Langland-Orban who is considering action. She asked the dean what they could do about Mierzejewski. The answer? Not much. In criticizing their study, Mierzejewski isn't doing research that can be held up to professional standards. Instead, he writes letters to publications, a right that is protected by the Constitution, USF administrators told Langland-Orban.

"His whole goal is to create confusion," she said. "He acts as if the research comes to these conflicting conclusions. It doesn't."

No elected official in Tampa Bay has called USF to talk to the study's researchers, said Langland-Orban, who along with Pracht and Large have done about 75 interviews with various media outlets.

"Locally, the reception has been to ignore our research," she said. "If you want the money from cameras, you don't want to know what their impact is."

St. Petersburg officials hadn't reviewed the USF study before approving cameras April 1. Those who had reviewed it after the vote dismissed it because of the center's competing view.

"I saw the one study, but then I saw the CUTR study," said council Chairwoman Leslie Curran. "So it's not conclusive."

Council member Wengay Newton said he would have liked to have seen the 2008 study. He was the lone vote against the cameras.

"The city wants red light cameras for revenue," Newton said. "You're not going to get the other side that's going to detract from that. The USF study? They're not going to bring that up. It's about the money."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

As red light cameras grow more popular, an academic dispute at USF simmers 04/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 30, 2010 7:04pm]

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