CLEARWATER — One after another, people came before the City Council to forcefully denounce red light cameras. They said the devices cause rear-end crashes and are really just a money grab by the government. They complained about a "1984 Orwellian police state." They warned, We'll remember this at election time.
An elderly woman from Clearwater Beach blasted the cameras as "highway robbery," prompting a round of applause from the audience.
However, this did not stop the City Council from voting 3-2 Thursday night to bring red light cameras to some of Clearwater's most dangerous intersections.
Really, only eight people spoke against the cameras, and in Clearwater eight isn't all that many. The Clearwater City Council has been yelled at by far more people than that over any number of contentious issues.
The three council members who support the red light cameras — Mayor Frank Hibbard, Vice Mayor John Doran and council member Bill Jonson — passionately insist that it's not about revenue, but instead it's about driver safety. They view the cameras as a tool for fighting an epidemic of red light running in the area.
"I think there are literally hundreds of thousands of things on the Internet you can read about this," said Doran, who began researching the issue in 2008 after he himself ran a red light and accidentally hit another car, causing minor injuries for the other driver.
"I've read both sides," he said. "I'm convinced we're better off as a society, as a community, to use photo-enhanced traffic enforcement to educate people about the wisdom of slowing down when you see a yellow light instead of speeding up."
Clearwater is the fourth city in Pinellas County to approve the cameras, behind St. Petersburg, Kenneth City and South Pasadena. Oldsmar is expected to approve them Tuesday.
Clearwater's first cameras are to be installed sometime next year. At the mayor's suggestion, they'll start by posting cameras at just a couple of intersections, which are yet to be determined. After six months, the city will study the data from those locations before deciding whether to continue.
Ultimately, city officials have about 10 dangerous intersections in mind for the cameras, mostly along Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.
A 2009 state law allows cities to install cameras at intersections and charges a $158 fine to the registered owner of any vehicle caught on camera running a red light.
Two Clearwater council members voted against the cameras — George Cretekos and Paul Gibson.
Cretekos and the cameras' chief proponent, Doran, debated the issue at length. Each cited examples and studies claiming that red light cameras are either good or bad for drivers' safety.
Gibson said, "I think that before you make a decision like this, the data should be conclusive."
Doran said the data would never be conclusive because different studies are conducted by organizations with different agendas, such as those funded by insurance companies or motorists' rights groups.
As for the mayor, Hibbard noted matter-of-factly that drivers who don't run red lights won't get tickets. He also said he trusted the opinions of Clearwater's police chief and its longtime traffic engineer, 40-year veteran Paul Bertels.
"He's kind of the brain for the entire county on traffic issues," Hibbard said of Bertels. "When he tells me he believes this will improve safety, that matters to me."
Cretekos and some members of the public argued that it would be more effective to extend yellow lights by a second or two.
But Bertels said the state likely wouldn't allow that because it would reduce traffic capacity, which can already be a problem at times in Clearwater.
The cameras take a photo of the red light runner's license plate. A traffic officer reviews the image, verifying the infraction. A notice is sent to the vehicle's registered owner. If the owner wasn't behind the wheel at the time of the infraction, that person has 30 days to file an affidavit declaring as much.
Violators are fined $158 for a nonmoving violation, which means no points are taken from their driver's license.
From each ticket on city and county roads, the state Department of Revenue gets $70, the state Department of Health gets $10, the brain and spinal cord injury trust fund gets $3 and the locality gets $75. For tickets on state roads, the state gets $100, the locality $45 and the trust funds $10 and $3, respectively.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.