ST. PETERSBURG — Promising that they were making streets safer, the city council on Thursday voted 7-1 to install red light cameras at some of the city's most dangerous intersections.
It's still unclear which intersections will have the cameras, or what types of traffic infractions would result in a fine of $150. In many cities that have installed cameras, those making right turns on red without stopping get fined, but Mayor Bill Foster has said that type of infraction won't be the aim of St. Petersburg's system.
Instead, the target will be the motorist who "blows" through an intersection well after the light has turned red, he said.
Because of an uncertain legal environment, it's not even clear if or when St. Petersburg can start filming violators. Still, even with all these unanswered questions, City Council members embraced cameras as a sure thing in reducing crashes.
"The research is very simple," said council member Bill Dudley. "Sit in your car and watch. There's so much data out there that says it's not a good thing. Running red lights is a form of disaster."
Council member Jeff Danner said online videos should convince anyone that red light cameras are necessary.
"Just type 'red light running' on YouTube, and watch all the crashes," Danner said. "You won't believe it. One is too many. This is a safety issue. We need to move forward on it."
Despite such certitude, council members didn't have specific data that showed cameras actually reduce crashes.
Council member Jim Kennedy made the motion to install the cameras, and cited unnamed studies that he said showed motorists quickly learn about the cameras after they get tickets. Crashes then go down, he said. But on Wednesday, Kennedy was asked which studies he was citing and he replied that he was quoting what the city officials had told him and that he hadn't actually seen the research himself.
A study that wasn't mentioned by city officials was done by the University of South Florida's College of Public Health last year. It concluded that red light cameras "rather than improving motorist safety … significantly increase crashes and are a ticket to higher auto insurance premiums."
"Cities that install cameras don't want crashes to go down," said Etienne Pracht, an associate professor of health policy and management at USF who worked on the study. "If they do that, revenue goes down. If they want to improve public safety, all they have to do is increase the length of the yellow light interval."
By increasing the interval of yellow by a second, intersection crashes go down by as much as 80 percent, Pracht said.
"This is a false debate we're having," Pracht said. "To reduce crashes, you don't need cameras."
The city's director of transportation and parking, Joe Kubicki, said after the vote that he wasn't aware of the USF study. Later on Thursday, Kubicki said he read the USF report, but didn't think much of it.
He said he became convinced cameras worked after talking with officials from other cities that have installed the cameras and the vendors who sold them.
St. Petersburg becomes the fourth city in Pinellas County to approve cameras behind Kenneth City, South Pasadena and Oldsmar. Other Tampa Bay governments that use them are Brooksville, Hillsborough County, Port Richey and Temple Terrace. City Council members said they received few e-mails in opposition to the cameras.
But elsewhere, the surge in the use of cameras is being met with resistance. At least 26 cities in Florida use them, according to the Florida League of Cities, and 13 of them (and one county) have been sued. Last month, a South Florida circuit judge ruled that the use of the cameras in Aventura was illegal because state law didn't allow them.
City Council members didn't dwell on these legal difficulties and instead tried to determine what to do next. They passed the ordinance knowing that Foster won't install them without a more clear direction from state lawmakers, who are considering a bill in the state house that would give cities the power to cite drivers for running red lights.
If the Legislature approves that bill, or another court decision allows it, city officials say they will install cameras at intersections that have high rates of crashes.
The camera would take a photo of the red light runner's license plate. A traffic officer would review the image, verifying the infraction. A notice would then be sent to the vehicle's registered owner. If the owner wasn't behind the wheel at the time of the infraction, that person would have 30 days to file an affidavit declaring as much.
If the owner knows the actual driver, the affidavit must include that person's name, address and driver's license. That person would then get cited. If the car was stolen, the affidavit would need to have the police report attached.
The violation is considered a noncriminal, civil infraction. Violators would be fined for a nonmoving violation, which means they wouldn't get points taken from their driver's license, but they would get fined $150. If they don't pay within 30 days, collection fees would be tacked onto the fine.
The lone no vote was Wengay Newton, who said he supported the cameras, but was concerned city officials viewed them as a way to make money.