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Brooksville official wants to roll back some red light camera fines

BROOKSVILLE — By most accounts, the city's red light camera program has proven to be a success in its eight months of operation.

Officials boast that intersections are safer than ever as drivers become more cautious. And the city has benefitted financially, with the program expected to generate roughly $800,000 by year's end.

But City Council member Joe Johnston says that not everything about the red light program is so rosy. Lately, he's been fielding calls from many people complaining about getting a ticket for failing to come to a complete stop before turning right at a red light.

Though Johnston admits he can't argue with state traffic laws, he wonders whether a relatively minor offense like a "rolling stop" merits the same punishment as someone who blows through a red light at high speed.

"A lot of people feel that $125 fine is a little excessive in that case," Johnston said this week. "When you're seeing 80 to 90 percent of tickets being given out for illegal right hand turns, that tells you something needs to be looked at."

A recent analysis showed that more than 70 percent of the drivers ticketed for red light infractions in Brooksville have been cited for failing to come to a complete stop before turning right.

"Let's face it, running a red light can have bad consequences," Johnston said. "But technically, we're talking about an ordinance violation, not a traffic law. It's something we have control over as far as the degree of the violation."

Aware that some municipalities have reduced the fines for drivers caught making such turns at red light camera intersections, Johnston suggested to fellow council members Monday night that the city consider doing the same.

He's not the first Brooksville official to suggest this change.

Bill Eppley, a former city attorney, was the hearing officer who reviewed the cases of all red-light runners who appealed their $125 tickets. He resigned in October over what he said was selective enforcement of city ordinances and what he considered excessive fines for red-light runners.

Eppley suggested that Brooksville cut the fine for drivers who aren't endangering others.

However, Council member Richard Lewis pointed out at Monday's meeting that doing so might be problematic since the city's contract with American Traffic Solutions of Scottsdale, Ariz., the company that owns and operates the cameras, might prohibit lowering fees.

Under the terms of the contract, the municipality receives $85 from every $125 fine collected, with the rest going to the company. It was unclear Thursday whether the city could change the contract at this time.

Brooksville police Chief George Turner said that drivers ticketed through the red-light camera program are already getting a break. Under the city ordinance, a citation issued through the red-light program is a civil violation similar to a parking ticket.

If a police officer observed the same infraction, the punishment could be a lot more severe.

"It's a fine of $214.05, plus four points added to your driver's license," Turner said. "When you factor in driver's school and increases to your insurance, it ends up being about half of what it would normally be."

A Brooksville police officer reviews photos and videos of possible red-light violations from the five camera locations within the city before determining when a citation is to be issued.

"We follow exactly what the law says and it's pretty clear," Turner said. "You must come to a complete stop before you turn right on red."

Rolling through red lights is at near-epidemic proportions, according to Ed Mierzejewski, director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.

"The reality is that most people look at right turn on red as a rolling stop," he said.

As the cameras proliferate in area communities, so, too, have complaints. For many critics, the cameras are simply a way for cash-strapped governments to raise money.

Johnston agrees that the windfall from the program has been a godsend to the city, which made heavy cuts to services and programs to meet its 2009-10 budget.

"It's a bit of a double-edge sword," Johnston said. "But it's important that we make sure this works fairly, too."

Council member Joe Bernardini, who initially opposed the red light cameras, said he will push the council to review the program before the city's contract with American Traffic Solutions comes up for renewal in February. He expects a lot of public comment.

"I'm not opposed to exploring some other options if need be," Bernardini said. "There are clearly people who aren't all that happy with it."

Information from Times files was used in this report. Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or 848-1435.

Brooksville official wants to roll back some red light camera fines 12/10/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 10, 2009 8:00pm]
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