TAMPA — As Susan Balistreri approached a yellow light on a rain-slick day, rush hour traffic loomed behind her. She rolled through the intersection and later paid the price.
In 2010, special traffic cameras captured more than 30,000 people running red lights in Hillsborough County. Balistreri and others have paid $2.5 million in fines since the cameras arrived at the end of 2009 as part of a sweeping effort to reduce traffic fatalities.
Were lives saved?
So far, the evidence is less than staggering and, at times, conflicting.
At one Brandon intersection, crashes dropped by almost half.
At another intersection, they climbed by one-third.
December statistics aren't yet available, but in the first 11 months of the year, 13 fewer crashes were reported at six Hillsborough intersections, compared with the same months in 2009, according to the Sheriff's Office. And eight fewer crashes resulted in injuries.
Two of the red-light cameras are in Temple Terrace and are operated by the city. Those crash statistics aren't yet available.
Some speculate that T-bone collisions simply turned into rear-end collisions. It's unclear how many of the 2010 Hillsborough crashes fell in either category.
"We're pleased with where we're at right now," Hillsborough Sheriff's Cpl. Troy Morgan said. "The crash numbers have been decreasing."
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In the 11-month comparison, the intersection of Brandon and Grand Regency boulevards showed the steepest drop, declining from 44 crashes in 2009 to 23 in 2010. More than 6,400 citations were issued there, making it the third busiest spot in the county.
There was also a decrease at Waters Avenue and Anderson Road, where 5,334 red-light citations were handed out. Crashes dropped 12 percent from 52 to 46.
The intersection where a camera caught Balistreri on a rainy day — Fletcher Avenue and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard — is the county's busiest citation spot, generating 7,762 tickets last year.
But there were just two fewer accidents, compared with the first 11 months of 2009.
In the same vein, thousands of citations at Waters Avenue and Dale Mabry Highway and hundreds of citations at Sligh and Habana had little or no apparent impact on the crash rates.
And crashes actually increased, from 45 to 60, at the intersection of Bloomingdale Avenue and Bell Shoals Road in the east Brandon area, despite more than 2,500 red-light tickets.
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With each $158 citation, $70 goes into the county's general revenue fund for use in unincorporated areas, accounting for roughly $1 million of the $2.5 million collected thus far.
The remaining money is divided among the state's general revenue fund, the state health department and the Brain and Spinal Research Trust Fund.
The company that operates the cameras, American Traffic Solutions, gets a set fee regardless of the number of citations issued.
Critics say money is the catalyst behind use of the technology.
Some, including National Motorists Association, charge that the red-light cameras actually result in more rear-end collisions as drivers slam their brakes to avoid getting ticketed.
But, supporters point to a reduction in crashes with injuries and emphasize the value of an extra eye on the streets.
"They provide coverage 24/7, 365 days a year at an intersection, something we in law enforcement would not be able to do," said Cpl. Morgan.
Even drivers seem to be split on the matter.
A St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 telephone poll last month showed that 64 percent in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties support using surveillance cameras to catch and ticket red-light runners. The poll surveyed 600 residents in the two counties and had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Balistreri, who ran the red light at Fletcher Avenue, said she's a supporter but thinks the cameras have flaws, including the inability to make judgment calls.
"Had a police officer been there, he would have taken into consideration the rush-hour traffic and rain-slicked roads," Balistreri, 60, said.
Tom Frauenchuh, 21, views the cameras as an invasion of privacy.
"They are an infringement upon our rights as citizens," Frauenchuh said. The University of South Florida student has been caught on camera before, but says it hasn't changed his driving behavior.
"I've seen people have a knee-jerk reaction to stop — so they may be working to some extent," he said. "But not with me."
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Despite the controversy, Florida cities and counties have embraced the technology. Red-light cameras are operating or are in the works in 46 communities, including Temple Terrace, Lakeland, Bradenton and Port Richey, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which supports the cameras' use.
Clearwater City Council narrowly approved using red-light cameras last month. St. Petersburg, Kenneth City, Oldsmar and South Pasadena have approved their use, as well, and Tampa is reviewing bids from companies to install the technology.
But even the numbers may not tell the whole story.
Cpl. Morgan, who cautioned against reading too much into the data, said the counts include accidents near intersections, not just at them. And the analysis doesn't examine how drivers' behavior has been affected, he said.
Generally, many drivers slow down if they know an intersection has red-light cameras, Morgan said, whether they've been ticketed in the past or not.
"It's like a patrol car," he said. "People modify their behavior if they see a patrol car parked there."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.