ST. PETERSBURG — Despite the city having fewer crashes than the national average, Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council have declared street safety enough of a problem that they need to crack down on red light running.
A council committee unanimously approved a plan Thursday to install 20 cameras at the most crash-prone intersections in the city. Foster and nearly every City Council member insist that the estimated $4.3 million windfall in ticket revenue expected in the first year isn't the motive behind the cameras.
"This isn't about money," Foster said. "This is about public safety."
Yet the evidence showing red light cameras make intersections safer is far from conclusive. While city officials cite federal studies that show cameras reduce crashes by 50 percent in the first year, researchers with the University of South Florida's Department of Public Health concluded that the cameras actually make intersections more dangerous by increasing the number of rear-end collisions.
"There's a strong incentive behind this red light camera program, and it's money," said Etienne Pracht, an economist who is associate professor of health policy and management at USF. "It's a hidden tax. There's no getting around that."
There's no denying that cameras bring in new revenue for cities and counties struggling with a historic drop in other revenue. Chicago, for instance, raised $58 million in fines from cameras in 2009. St. Petersburg, which will face an estimated budget shortfall of more than $10 million next year, is proposing to hire a vendor that will provide cameras, which the city staff will operate.
Such a plan would cost an estimated $5.3 million over three years, according to Joe Kubicki, the city's director of transportation and parking management. But the cameras will raise $8.2 million in ticket revenue during the same period, netting nearly $3 million.
Once cameras are installed, drivers who are recorded blowing through a red light will get a $158 ticket. If the ticket isn't paid within 30 days, the fine will increase to $256.
"You get hit with a few of these tickets, you'll rethink your behavior," said Council Member Jeff Danner. "A year from now, we'll have stats that will back that up. It will reduce T-bone crashes."
At least one council member opposes the plan, however. Wengay Newton said it would be more effective to lengthen the intervals of red lights so that all four corners have stopped traffic.
"But this isn't a safety thing," Newton said. "It's a revenue thing."
The entire City Council will vote on the plan next Thursday. Then, city officials will determine which of the city's 298 intersections with signals will have cameras. Kubicki recommended 20.
He said the city will seek bids from vendors, which will take about eight months.
Kubicki is recommending the cameras even after officials conducted a study a year and a half ago that showed hazard rates in city intersections were lower than the national average.
"That's great," Kubicki said. "But we still have a problem with red light running."
Evidence for that claim, Kubicki said, is that the city wrote 1,000 citations for red light running last year. Kubicki called 1,000 "significant," but did not have comparable numbers for other cities.
He and police Chief Chuck Harmon said the horrendous nature of crashes that occur from red light running merit the cameras, even if they cause more rear-end collisions.
"We've found that the damage is much worse in right-angle crashes," Harmon said.
But red light cameras likely would not have saved the lives that were lost in the most recent crashes involving red lights.
• On Aug. 1, an Orlando father and his three sons were killed when a driver blew through a light at 22nd Avenue North and Martin Luther King Jr. Street. Authorities said the 20-year-old driver who caused the accident was drunk and high.
• On Sept. 3, 56-year-old Gary Lane Smith of St. Petersburg was killed when his car was T-boned by a teen driver who ran a light at Fifth Avenue S and 31st Street S. The teen, a robbery suspect, was fleeing the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, which had been chasing him minutes earlier.
• Four days later, 64-year-old Mary Margaret Overton of St. Petersburg was killed when a driver rear-ended a group of cars stopped at a light at Fifth Avenue N and 49th Street.
"Those types of accidents aren't necessarily going to be abated by cameras," said Mike Puetz, a spokesman for St. Petersburg police. "The kid that's being chased by police isn't necessarily going to stop because there's a camera there."
But, Puetz said, cameras could influence drivers who may be inclined to beat a yellow light.
Getting the violation on camera also could prove useful if there's some doubt about witness accounts or who may be at fault in accidents, he said.
"Video evidence is the best evidence," he said.
The cameras also will help police stretch their limited resources, Harmon said.
Major intersections can require as many as six officers to enforce on a frequent basis, Harmon said, which police can manage only twice a month.
"It's just not that consistent," Harmon said. "This will allow better enforcement of the major intersections that have problems. It will also help to change the mind-set of motorists."
Kubicki said the city will review the program after three years, and could phase it out after five years if accidents go down enough.
For USF's Pracht, it already sounds as if crashes in St. Petersburg are down enough. When told that the city's worst intersection, 34th Street at First Avenue S, has a rate of 3.67 crashes per million vehicles, Pracht said that was "pretty low."
"You'd have to sit at any one intersection, even bad ones, for a few hundred years before you get a fatality," Pracht said. "Cameras are a law enforcement solution to the problem. And law enforcement deters bad behavior. So it can deter willful red light running, but it won't deter accidental red light running."
Kubicki said he will make sure those who enter the intersection when the light is yellow won't get tickets. Neither will those who are caught in the middle of the intersections while trying to make left turns. Or those making right turns on red in a "safe and prudent" manner.
And what is "safe and prudent"?
That's one of the things the city has yet to determine, Kubicki said.