Monday, December 11, 2017
Public safety

Red-light cameras are watching, and that's a good thing

Hey, you there. The person who was driving that maroon minivan at Gandy and West Shore the day before Christmas.

Maybe you were making a frantic rush to the mall, or maybe that's just how you drive. But friend, when you rolled that right turn without stopping after the traffic light had clearly gone red, you were looking at a $158 ticket.

That will dampen your Christmas spirit.

How do I know, since no blue lights showed up in your rear view to wreck your day that day?

Because one of those red-light cameras recently installed at our worst intersections was on the job. It took a photo of your van before and after the light changed. It took video, too. And sensors on the ground were busy noting how fast you were going. Who knew, right?

That information about you — and others similarly suspected of color-blindness, including scarier ones who sailed straight through intersections like the traffic lights were mere suggestions — was sent off to a camera company in Arizona. The likely violations were sent back to local police for the final call on whether they — and you, Minivan-On-A-Mission — would find something expensive in your mail.

Maybe even as you were taking down the Christmas twinkle lights, an officer was at a desk at the police station, eyeing your van on a computer screen. He could slow you down to quarter-speed, watch you frame by frame, play the video as many times as he wanted and zoom in on your tag down to the mud splatters.

Tampa police Sgt. Carl Giguere told me the kind of things considered in the to-ticket-or-not-to-ticket decision: In your case, Mr. Minivan, you were turning right and not blowing directly through the light. You were going slower than the 15 mph Tampa police set as the cutoff for nailing "the worst of the worst" right-on-reds. There were no pedestrians.

No ticket.

You got lucky even if you didn't know it.

But plenty didn't as red-light cameras debuted in Tampa and St. Petersburg — not the SUV I watched on screen gunning through the light and seeming a whisker away from a newspaper vendor; not the car sailing through a red light on a rain-slick street at night.

(Yes, the cameras are on duty 24/7.)

And here's a detail police particularly like: An officer can go through dozens of those culled cases in an hour, work that could take an entire squad days of staking out an intersection, waiting through light cycles and pulling people over.

Tampa's cameras meant 12,606 tickets in the first two months, 6,338 in St. Petersburg. And good. My anti-Big-Brother tendencies go right out the window when it comes to dumb choices that can hurt people. This week, I saw not one but two drivers pecking on iPads in traffic. It hurt my head.

It's not just me: In a recent poll in Hillsborough and Pinellas, 62 percent of us gave red-light cameras a thumbs-up.

We're still getting used to them, though. A few who saw a photo of their car printed on the ticket, the one taken before the car got into the intersection, called police to say it clearly showed they were stopped. They were gently told this was a still photo, and directed to the video viewable on a website to tell the whole tale. And the ones I saw left little room for argument: Light turns red, car keeps going.

As with recycling bins and watering restrictions, I think we'll get used to cameras watching how we drive. And eventually, maybe even the misguided minivans among us will pick the correct pedal for when the light goes red.

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