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St. Petersburg man takes on City Hall and red light cameras

ST. PETERSBURG — Whether red light cameras get installed at 20 busy intersections next year could hinge on how successful one man is in convincing city leaders they made a mistake in approving them.

It's a long shot, but Matt Florell thinks he's got a chance.

"If the evidence showed injuries and collisions went down where the cameras are, I wouldn't raise a stink about it," he said. "But the evidence doesn't suggest that and I want the council to know. I think I can change their minds."

Since March, Florell has pored over nearly 30 studies that examined how red light cameras have performed in other cities. He wrote a 31-page analysis summarizing the studies, which cover 264 intersections in 20 jurisdictions across North America. Florell says that by a margin of 3 to 1, the studies show total crashes increased after the cameras were installed.

"The large increase in crashes," Florell says, "shows the very dangerous unintended consequences of using red light camera systems, especially since most municipalities install them in order to increase safety."

It's a lonely crusade against a program that typically gets controversial only after people start getting tickets.

More than 400 jurisdictions use red light cameras, but a wave of them are now reconsidering. Red light cameras were shut off at 50 Houston intersections last month after a slim majority of residents voted to cancel the city's program. In October, Royal Palm Beach's city leaders scrapped the program before the cameras were installed based on concerns they don't make streets safer. Los Angeles' city controller issued an audit in September that concluded they had failed to show safety improvements.

"I don't want to say, 'I told you so,' " Florell said. "But these cameras time and time again have proven to be effective at really one thing, and that's making money. People don't know that until after they are installed."

Proponents of the cameras say they reduce the most dangerous type of crash: broadside collisions known as T-bones. While rear-end collisions may increase — as drivers slam on their brakes to avoid tickets, causing a chain reaction — crashes that cause injuries go down, they say. City officials cite federal studies that show cameras reduce crashes by 50 percent in the first year. Some researchers even suggest that the cameras produce a halo effect around the intersections with cameras, making others that don't have them safer as well.

But Florell said the evidence that camera advocates cite is flawed and unreliable. He's been meeting individually with council members and asking them to reconsider. Bill Dudley, who has been a strong advocate for the cameras, said Florell makes a strong case. "He's put a lot of time into this, and his report is very impressive," Dudley said. "It's too bad we didn't have that when we approved it. I heard what he had to say and I'll keep an open mind."

Council member Karl Nurse said he thinks the city should reconsider. "He did a ton of serious research and he came to the opposite conclusion that the city did," he said. "It wouldn't hurt us to slow down and take a look at this."

What's in it for Florell? He's not a vendor. At 35, he's the president of a company that writes software for corporate phone systems. He's a father of a 5-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter and a wife who supports his curiosity.

"She sees my interest in red light cameras as a hobby," he said.

He has been fined for five traffic infractions since 2001. In February, he was fined for running a stop sign.

"If it compromises my findings that I have tickets, that's too bad," Florell said. "All I can ask is that people read my study."

He created a website for his research, www.stpetecameras.org.

When the City Council discussed installing the cameras earlier this year, Florell said he started reading the studies that were both for and against.

He noticed the ones that were supportive of the cameras were often financed by vendors selling the surveillance systems. He also concluded that ones critical of the cameras used methods that were more scientific and objective.

Florell's research led him to question the rationale the city has given for approving the cameras.

Safety was the reason cited by Mayor Bill Foster in pushing the program, which the council approved 7-1 in April. The city will hire a vendor and could install the cameras by summer. Wengay Newton was the only nay vote, saying he felt the cameras were viewed by city officials as a way to make money.

Cameras do make money. In 2009, Chicago raised $58 million in fines from cameras. Houston has made $44 million from the cameras since 2006. Since January, Hillsborough County has raised nearly $4 million.

While the cameras are expected to raise $8 million over three years in St. Petersburg, Foster and the seven council members who approved them insist that money wasn't a consideration.

"This isn't about money," Foster said. "This is about public safety."

Joe Kubicki, the city's director of transportation and parking, has provided the council with reports that overwhelmingly support the use of cameras. He regularly cites statistics about how cameras reduce crashes by 50 percent in the first year.

Florell said his research shows the opposite. Echoing research done by the University of South Florida's Department of Health, Florell found that studies generally show intersections are more crash-prone with cameras.

In Chicago, crashes went up by 5 percent at camera-equipped intersections. They climbed by 13 percent in Costa Mesa, Calif., by 40 percent in Greensboro, N.C., and by 133 percent in Temple Terrace.

"I'm not a traffic engineer," Florell said. "But hopefully the council members will listen to me."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Read the reports

Matt Florell's 31-page analysis of red light cameras is at

www.stpetecameras.org.

St. Petersburg man takes on City Hall and red light cameras 12/11/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 11, 2010 11:29pm]
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