ST. PETERSBURG — Rear-end wrecks at intersections with red light cameras have spiked 44 percent in the last year, city records show.
Those crashes jumped from 64 to 92 between November 2011 and October, the first year of St. Petersburg's red light camera program. Rear-end crashes also climbed at crash-prone intersections without the cameras, but at a lesser rate of 19 percent, or from 52 crashes to 62.
Today, the future of the program could be at stake when the City Council debates whether cameras make streets safer or only generate cash for the city. Mayor Bill Foster wants to increase the cameras from 22 to 31, and the council has no power to halt the expansion.
It could, however, dissolve the contract with the private vendor that supplies the system, effectively killing the program.
The statistics about the rear-end crashes were not included in a large report on the program council members received last week. The Tampa Bay Times reported previously that the 122-page report also omitted figures on the total number of accidents at the intersections with cameras.
Council member Wengay Newton wants all the facts on the program.
"Staffers are purposely deceiving the council so they keep this going," he said.
Newton said his goal is to end the program. He is surprised that rear-end wrecks didn't rise even more. He attributes the increase to drivers being paranoid about receiving a $158 violation if they run a red light.
"Cameras are causing these," he said. "People are freaking out and slamming on their brakes."
Not so fast, says Michael Frederick, a city transportation manager.
Based on the crash reports filled out by police officers, some of those accidents could not be attributed to red-light cameras. He had no choice but to code them as rear-end crashes, he said.
The total for rear-end crashes was not listed in the report since the briefing dealt only with accidents caused by running red lights, he said.
The number of crashes caused by red-light runners using the 22 approaches covered by cameras at 10 St. Petersburg intersections fell 43 percent. The total number of accidents caused by red-light runners at those intersections fell 24 percent, records show.
Besides deterring drivers from accelerating through intersections, the cameras have helped police pinpoint which drivers caused more than 200 accidents, Frederick said.
He is urging the council to continue the program.
The spike in rear-end crashes was not a surprise to the camera vendor.
Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions said it's typical for rear-end crashes to rise in the first year after cities install cameras. The numbers usually fall after 18 months.
"Motorists are modifying their driving," said Beth Leytham, a Tampa spokeswoman hired by the firm. "It takes about 18 months to change their behavior."
Council member Jim Kennedy supports expanding the cameras.
The fact that 92 percent of drivers who got violations didn't get a second one shows the cameras are working, he said. And only 36 percent of the violations went to cars registered in the city, he added.
Kennedy doesn't see the connection between rear-end crashes and cameras.
He believes many of the wrecks are caused by drivers either texting, talking or eating behind the wheel. He looks forward to the briefing and the council debate about the program.
"I don't see anything that changes my opinion," Kennedy said..
Last week, the Times found that the report presented to the council didn't detail the number of total crashes in the 10 intersections. After requesting the figure, the city produced a document showing the crashes actually rose 10 percent.
A city manager apologized to the council the next day for omitting the record.
Foster believes cameras make intersections safer and doesn't want the council to kill the program.
If that happened, Foster would have to find a way to make up the $707,000 the city has budgeted to earn from the tickets. The city's budget, he said, could absorb the hit since administrators aren't freely spending.
Still, he stressed the program is about safety, not money.
"It's a valid tool to modify poor driving habits," Foster said this week.
Not everyone agrees.
Collier County commissioners voted 3-2 last week to remove 19 red light cameras from 12 intersections there, exercising an option in the county's contract with the Arizona vendor. Officials killed the program because no evidence showed that cameras reduced accidents.
Mark Puente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.