Even as red-light cameras begin recording violations across Tampa Bay, getting a ticket is hardly automatic.
Nearly half of the cases in recent red-light crackdowns in Tampa and St. Petersburg have been thrown out.
In St. Petersburg, almost 60 percent of the drivers caught by cameras since citations began three weeks ago were not ticketed, even if they technically ran a red light. In Tampa, about 45 percent of drivers got off free.
"I think people think that it's just an automatic thing — cameras and computers. But we're actually looking at these closely and trying to be as fair as possible," said St. Petersburg police Lt. William Korinek, head of traffic enforcement.
Motorists who escaped tickets can thank reviewers who study the taped infractions and legal subtleties that make laws a little murky, especially right-on-red infractions.
Of all the cases rejected by St. Petersburg investigators, two-thirds involve right turns on red. In Tampa, those account for about half of the rejections.
"The law hasn't changed," Korinek said. "You still have to stop on red before you make your right." But the law does provide wiggle room.
If a police officer observes a driver failing to stop at a right-on-red intersection, a ticket may follow. If a camera observes the same act, the motorist might get lucky.
Under the statute governing camera enforcement, review panels must decide whether motorists are being "careful and prudent," a vague standard that makes enforcement more difficult.
In Pinellas County, right-turn tickets will be issued only if a vehicle is traveling at 12 mph or more, or endangering pedestrians, cars or others in the road.
In Tampa and Hillsborough County, the speed is 15 mph.
And even if a driver exceeds that speed, it's not an automatic ticket.
Review panels take into account the surrounding traffic, whether other vehicles are obscuring the driver's view, whether the driver has attempted to slow down, and whether pedestrians or cyclists are in the crosswalk. The panels also consider if inclement weather played a role.
"There are always going to be some that are in a gray area," said St. Petersburg civilian investigator Donna Babcock.
In each case, investigators know the vehicle's speed and how long after the light has been red that it passes the sensor, triggering the cameras. They look at two photos and a video, which can be analyzed in slow motion.
Babcock says she and the six other St. Petersburg investigators examine each case carefully before deciding whether to issue a $158 ticket.
"I'm in their corner," she said. "That's why I don't watch it one time. I watch it over and over until I'm comfortable that the driver has shown me that no attempt (to stop) was made."
Only then is a ticket issued for a right-turn violation.
In St. Petersburg, since the red-light citations began on Oct. 29, nearly 60 percent of the 6,000 cases were closed without a ticket. City officials think the program could generate up to $900,000 in its first year.
In Tampa, roughly 6,300 of 14,330 cases since Nov. 1 have been rejected, according to Charles Territo, a spokesman for red-light camera vendor American Traffic Solutions of Scottsdale, Ariz.
Both programs are only weeks old and percentages are likely to change.
In addition, comparing red-light camera programs is difficult at best.
"No two intersections are alike," said Territo.
What is evident from the two programs is that investigators are looking carefully at violations, Territo said.
"I think it's important to understand that every time that camera flashes there is not a computer spitting out a ticket," said Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Cpl. Troy Morgan.
For each department, American Traffic Solutions reviews cases and eliminates some infractions — for example, drivers stopping just over the line or making a right turn at low speed who aren't endangering anyone else.
Then investigators take a look, ultimately deciding whether a ticket will be issued.
Morgan says the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, which has been issuing red-light tickets since the end of 2009, rejects most right-on-red violations. In the first six months of this year, the Sheriff's Office issued 12,522 tickets but only 81 for right-on-reds.
There's a high standard for issuing right-turn tickets.
"We have to go before the judge," Morgan said, "and explain that it is not careful and prudent."