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Brooksville's traffic cameras are on, and so is the debate

BROOKSVILLE — In May, Mayor Joe Bernardini was the lone dissenting vote on the City Council against red-light cameras. Last week, in his other role, he was installing a high-speed cable line for the city's newest eyes in the sky.

That makes Bernardini the city official most responsible for the installation of the cameras, despite his reservations.

"Hey, I had no choice," said a grinning Bernardini, a service technician with AT&T. "I just think there's other options that we could have used."

The traffic cameras at the southwest corner of Broad Street and Dr. M.L. King Jr. Boulevard started operating March 30, kicking off both the city's red-light camera program and a 30-day warning period for violators. They are the first of five sets that will be placed at heavy-traffic intersections throughout the city.

Over the 30-day period, a warning notice will be issued to the owner of any registered vehicle that commits a violation. At the end of that period, all violators will receive a citation and not a warning.

But Bernardini and others are issuing their own warnings about the cameras. Among those hoping to stop the spread of cameras is the National Motorists Association, which has called for a nationwide ban of the program.

"I think cameras are just a way for cash-strapped cities and counties to extract every ounce of revenue possible," said Henry Stowe, a Florida member of the association.

"It's getting ridiculous,'' he said. "You almost need a spreadsheet to keep tabs on how many cities are trying to put in cameras to fleece motorists."

With police Chief George Turner leading the charge, Brooksville has become the latest municipality in Florida to turn to red-light cameras. Also signing contracts with American Traffic Solutions of Scottsdale, Ariz., are Hillsborough County, Temple Terrace and Lakeland, among others.

And more are on the way.

"We keep expecting (more business) because communities see the success of the program" ATS spokesman Josh Weiss said. "The program is totally paid for. It's the equivalent to adding new officers."

The program is attractive, in part, because cities pay nothing to have the cameras installed. Instead, ATS installs and cares for the cameras and makes money by taking $40 from every $125 ticket issued.

Motorists who run red lights are photographed by the cameras twice, as the vehicle approaches the light and then crosses the intersection. The cameras will also shoot a video, which will be available for the violator to view online.

A Brooksville police officer will view the video and ultimately determine if the driver broke the law. If so, the driver would be sent a ticket — a civil, not a criminal, citation — similar to a parking ticket, with no points imposed against a driver's license.

Weiss, Turner and other proponents boast that the cameras are proven to reduce the number of crashes and red-light runners. From July 2007 to June 2008, Weiss said, ATS customers saw an 88 percent drop in the number of red-light violations.

But organizations like the NMA have disputed those statistics with numbers of their own.

Some concerns include the risk of rear-end crashes as drivers slam on brakes to avoid running a red light, and the notion that the owner of a ticketed vehicle may not be the person actually driving the vehicle as it goes through the intersection.

Stowe pointed to a study conducted last year from the University of South Florida that concluded the cameras increase crashes. He also pointed to a recent ban on red-light cameras in Mississippi.

"I tend to believe individual research rather than someone bought and paid for by red-light camera vendors, the ticket industry and law enforcement," Stowe said.

Weiss rebutted Stowe's claims and disputed the results of the USF study. In a written statement, Weiss also noted the study's author, Barbara Langland-Orban, had once filed a federal suit against Tampa because of a ticket she received from the police. Langland-Orban's lawsuit was eventually dismissed and her appeal was denied.

"We place no credibility in this obviously biased study," said the ATS statement sent by Weiss. "We have more faith in the chiefs of police and traffic professionals than a disgruntled academician who clearly has some ax to grind."

At the moment, the push for more red-light cameras seems to be gaining more support in Florida. Lawmakers in Tallahassee are considering a bill to allow red-light cameras on state rights of way.

If that measure passes, Brooksville and other cities and counties interested in using the cameras would have a much easier time finding places to mount cameras.

"It seems that others now believe that red-light cameras are a benefit to our community," said Vice Mayor Lara Bradburn, who supported the program. "I'm sure there are some communities out there that foolishly depend on gimmicks like this to supplement their revenue. That is not how the city of Brooksville operates."

Meanwhile, Bernardini has been vocal but — at times — conflicted in his opposition to the program. He actually voted for the measure to install cameras in Brooksville but later cast the only dissenting vote to award the contract to ATS.

Bernardini wonders if the cameras will actually decrease accidents and if a violation will cause problems for truck drivers and others driving company vehicles.

As someone who drives an AT&T van for work, Bernardini said he didn't want to see anyone lose their job — especially during a time of record unemployment in Hernando — because of a citation.

"We'll just have to see how things go," Bernardini said. "But if we get a citation, some type of punishment is going to be handed down."

Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

Brooksville's traffic cameras are on, and so is the debate 04/10/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 13, 2009 4:01pm]
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