OLDSMAR — A second is very little time in the press of life but a meaningful measurement in the delicately tuned universe of traffic enforcement.
In Oldsmar, a difference of about a second is raising questions over the use of red-light cameras that could have significant ramifications in this city, and beyond.
In August, the city began operating a camera to catch red-light runners at the heavily traveled intersection of State Road 580 and Tampa Road, joining cities throughout Florida that have installed the devices.
In November, after Oldsmar's cameras had resulted in close to half a million dollars in tickets, city officials realized they had a problem. It appeared the traffic light wasn't working properly.
The city contacted the Florida Department of Transportation. A DOT review showed that the yellow light at the intersection was lasting only three seconds, when it should have been lasting 4.5 seconds, Oldsmar officials said.
The timing of the light was corrected on Nov. 7, but the city's handling of the affair has angered some who say thousands of drivers might have received the dreaded $158 ticket for red-light running in error.
"The amount of money that the city received out of this is mind-boggling," said Oldsmar resident Todd Male, 55, who received and paid a ticket when a camera caught him going through a red light at the intersection. "It's a large enough amount that the onus should be back on the city to refund us."
City spokeswoman Ann Stephan said Oldsmar has no plans to refund any ticket revenue. She said the yellow-light time, while shorter than that recommended by the state, was not so short as to be illegal.
Stephan said the city asked DOT to review the light after hearing complaints that the yellow signal at the intersection "felt a little too quick."
There are four intersections with red-light cameras in Oldsmar, Stephan said. Only the one at SR 580 and Tampa Road was changed. But overall ticket revenue from the cameras fell off dramatically after the yellow-light time at the intersection was lengthened, going from $158,158 from tickets issued in October and early November to $81,084 from tickets in November and early December, according to city figures.
In the last four months of 2012, all of the city's red-light cameras brought in $541,801 in revenue — and that's not counting overdue ticket payments, which increase from $158 to $264. Of that, the city kept $171,393, with $284,862 going to the state and $85,546 going to American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona-based contractor that runs the cameras.
Controversy over the timing of Oldsmar's light is so far confined to that city. That could change as more becomes known about how the light continued to operate incorrectly for months.
The DOT is responsible for traffic lights on state roads throughout Florida, and American Traffic Solutions has erected intersection cameras in cities throughout the state, including St. Petersburg and Tampa.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster announced Thursday that he would delay setting up new red-light cameras while the city evaluates complaints that yellow lights at targeted intersections in that city are not lasting long enough.
John O'Brien, a DOT spokesman, referred questions about the Oldsmar intersection to the department's local office. Officials there could not be reached for comment Friday.
The case of Oldsmar resident Pat Knapp offers a glimpse of what might ensue if others choose to challenge their tickets based on the wrongly timed light at SR 580 and Tampa Road.
Knapp was ticketed at the intersection in August. Earlier this year, he took his case to court, arguing that since the yellow light was too short, his ticket should be thrown out. A Pinellas judge agreed, he said, dismissing his case.
Knapp said the authorities responsible for the light owe others who got tickets the same consideration.
"They need to make amends for what they did," he said. "They did everybody wrong, and they should have known about it."
Peter Jamison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.