Clearwater red-light camera plans based on tickets, not crash data

Among the recommended intersections: Belcher and Sunset Point roads, where the red-light crash rate was relatively low.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Among the recommended intersections: Belcher and Sunset Point roads, where the red-light crash rate was relatively low.

CLEARWATER — Say you ran a city and wanted red-light cameras. Where would you install them?

(A) At the intersection with the most red-light crash deaths, with two killed?

(B) At the intersection with the most red-light crash injuries, with a dozen hurt?

(C) At the intersection with 11 red-light crashes, the most in the city?

(D) At the intersection with the most red-light tickets but only one injury?

If you answered D, you've got company. Clearwater officials decided where to put red-light cameras by using only one measure: where the most tickets had been written for red-light running.

A Times review of 250 red-light crashes between 2008 and 2011 shows that decision ignored more than a dozen dangerous intersections with far higher red-light crash rates.

Officials recommended two intersections — on Belcher Road at its intersections with Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Sunset Point Road — with a combined total of 11 crashes and one injury related to red-light running. Those account for 4 percent of the city's total red-light crashes and less than 1 percent of its 218 red-light injuries.

When the City Council voted last week to pursue a red-light camera contract with Redflex Traffic Systems, members insisted they wanted safer streets, not the money the $158 tickets for red-light running could bring the city.

But officials in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Hillsborough County, where camera plans were based chiefly on crash data, say ticket-based camera plans have one main goal: making money.

"We're in the safety business," said Marc Hamlin, Tampa's assistant police chief, "and we felt where the crashes were would be the most apropos to put cameras. ... Ticket data won't tell you where the crashes are."

Clearwater traffic operations manager Paul Bertels said he chose the camera sites from a ranking of the 11 "white light" intersections with the most tickets.

The small white lights installed at those 11 intersections synchronize with traffic signals and are visible from all sides, allowing police officers to watch for red-light runners from a safe angle.

Bertels said the city's crash data from earlier than four years ago was less reliable because of changes in how it was reported. When he began planning for the cameras six months ago, he said, "it was just easier" to use the ticket data.

Yet there is one problem: Intersections where it is easier or safer for police to give tickets, like those with white lights, tend to have more tickets.

Inconvenient or unproductive intersections yield fewer tickets.

One example: Fort Harrison Avenue and Chestnut Street downtown. The intersection had the city's highest red-light crash rate but relatively few tickets.

"I was shocked to see how many accidents were there," Bertels said after the St. Petersburg Times asked about the city's process. "Nobody would think they had that many red-light crashes there because nobody ever enforced there and nobody ever complained."

This week, Bertels changed his recommendation and suggested the city install the cameras at the Fort Harrison-Chestnut intersection, instead of on Belcher at Sunset Point, making one of the cameras' locations based on crashes and the other on tickets. He said he will discuss the idea with the police and City Manager Bill Horne next week.

That change would edge closer to the thinking of Clearwater police Lt. Dan Slaughter, the special operations commander responsible for the city's traffic team.

"To me, I would pick the one with the highest volume of crashes," Slaughter said. "If your goal is to have fewer crashes, that just makes logical sense."

Clearwater's decision-making bears little resemblance to that of St. Petersburg, where officials conducted a crash analysis, without ticket data, before deciding where the cameras were needed most.

"When we went with cameras, the first thing we wanted to know was our crash situation," said Michael Frederick, St. Petersburg's manager of neighborhood transportation. "We did not look at citation data. . . . The officers go to locations where they can physically enforce safely, which may not be the locations with the highest crashes."

Redflex spokesman Tom Herrmann said the company recommends cities base their camera sites on crashes, the injuries and traffic volume. Tickets, he said, "are not a leading factor."

Clearwater City Council member John Doran, a vocal camera supporter, said he believed intersections with the most tickets allowed for a "higher probability of crashes." He added that they provided a "better teaching opportunity" for red-light runners.

"This is all about traffic flow and traffic safety," Doran said. "If they say I'm thinking about the money, they're wrong."

But Gary Biller, the executive director of the National Motorists Association, which opposes the cameras, said the backwards proposal laid bare the city's true motive.

"That's totally the wrong way to look at this. If it's about safety, you look at crash rates and injury rates," Biller said. "It reinforces that this is all about the money."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Comparing intersections

City intersections where red light cameras are proposed:
Belcher Road and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard
Crashes: 10 Deaths: 0 Injuries: 1
Belcher Road and Sunset Point Road
Crashes: 1 Deaths: 0 Injuries: 0
Some city intersections where cameras are not proposed:
Drew Street and Belcher Road
Crashes: 6 Deaths: 2 Injuries: 6
Myrtle Avenue and Court Street
Crashes: 5 Deaths: 1 Injuries: 3
Court Street and Missouri Avenue
Crashes: 4 Deaths: 0 Injuries: 12
Fort Harrison Avenue and Chestnut Street
Crashes: 11 Deaths: 0 Injuries: 9
U.S. 19 and Drew Street
Crashes: 7 Deaths: 0 Injuries: 11
Sunset Point Road and Old Coachman Road
Crashes: 5 Deaths: 0 Injuries: 8

Based on Clearwater red light crash data from August 2008 to December 2010.

Clearwater red-light camera plans based on tickets, not crash data 07/28/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 29, 2011 1:51pm]

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