Sunday, May 20, 2018
News Roundup

Missing from St. Petersburg council report on red light cameras: Crashes actually increased

ST. PETERSBURG — A one-inch thick report for the City Council about red light cameras touted their safety benefits, the money they generated and how they had changed motorists' behavior for the better.

But one key statistic was left out of the 122-page report: Total crashes actually jumped 10 percent at intersections with cameras in the program's first year.

City staffers compiled the report so the council could consider whether to support Mayor Bill Foster's plan to install nine more cameras.

The Tampa Bay Times requested the total crash numbers Wednesday after examining the report. Within minutes, the city supplied a one-page document that showed the increase.

Crashes increased from 298 to 328 at the 10 intersections with cameras between November 2011 and October. Total crash numbers were included in two earlier council reports and also used to decide where cameras should go.

Council member Wengay Newton said the mayor and staffers "bamboozled" the group into thinking cameras would make streets safer. Newton questioned why the report didn't include overall crash numbers.

"We need all the data to make an informed decision," Newton said. "You can't hide under the shroud of secrecy. We should just kill the program. This was put there for revenue."

So far, cameras have caught 36,185 drivers running red lights in their first year of use. After paying the vendor and the state, St. Petersburg collected $707,226 for its coffers, about 17 percent less than expected.

Cameras nabbed the most red light runners at 34th Street and 38th Avenue N. Second place went to 34th Street and First Avenue S.

Staffers will brief council members on the report during a workshop today. The group doesn't have the power to stop the expansion, but it could vote to kill the entire program on Dec. 20.

The report listed dozens of pages about the history of red light cameras and data about specific crash types. It states that crashes caused by red light running decreased 25 percent at those intersections, and injuries from those crashes fell by 39 percent over three years.

Council member Charlie Gerdes appreciates all depth of the data but can't understand why overall crash rates were left out.

He wants city staffers to be consistent in reporting their findings.

"I don't want to look at reports that tell me something different," Gerdes said. "It needs to have all the stats in it."

Michael Frederick, a city transportation manager, said staffers were told by the mayor and the council to evaluate the performance of cameras, not intersections. He stressed that three to five years of data is needed to determine overall crash trends.

"We are not trying to hide anything," he said.

Frederick also pointed out that the report didn't include crashes involving pedestrians, bicycles and sideswipes. Police have 25 factors to choose from when listing a crash's cause on a report.

The city installed red light cameras at 10 intersections in September 2011. After one year, the council had expected to get an update to determine if cameras reduced traffic accidents.

The program created controversy in October when the council learned from Matt Florell, a local resident and well-schooled camera critic, that more cameras were in the works. At that time, Foster agreed to halt the expansion until staffers compiled data for an entire year.

The expansion is needed, the report concluded, because cameras can cast a much wider net. Patrol officers issued 1,025 tickets in the same period that cameras recorded more than 36,000 violations.

After reading the lengthy report, Florell called on staffers to present a complete analysis to the council.

He frequently has requested records to lobby the council about problems with the program. He has scoured dozens of reports from other cities to determine how updates are presented, and said most are no longer than 24 pages.

Florell expected to find a total for all crashes in this week's report since staffers had listed it in earlier updates.

"Total crashes are always listed," Florell said. "I don't think they could have written a more slanted and misleading report if they tried."

Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

St. Petersburg installed red-light cameras at 10 intersections in 2011. Here is the number of violations they recorded since police started writing tickets in November.

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