When the St. Petersburg City Council votes Thursday to launch a red light camera program at major city intersections, members should be honest with the public about why they want the program: to reduce red light running and to make millions for the city treasury from ticket revenue. But council members should make sure that the city's program is structured to promote safety, not revenue generation.
Until there was major money to be made from red light enforcement, local governments didn't concern themselves nearly so much with red light runners. Now, it is a top initiative in communities around the country.
Red light cameras are mounted in intersections and take images of the traffic light and the license plate of any vehicle approaching the intersection. The images are later reviewed to determine whether each car photographed ran the red light. The owner of an offending car receives a citation in the mail that costs $158 if paid within 30 days, $256 if the payment is late.
St. Petersburg plans to hire a vendor to supply its cameras, but city staff will manage the program. The city must share revenue with the state but still expects to make a profit of about $3 million during the first three years of enforcement. City transportation director Joe Kubicki says he'll make sure that people won't get tickets if they get stuck in an intersection while turning left or if they turn right on red safely.
But even with council approval Thursday, cameras wouldn't be installed in St. Petersburg until next year. That gives the city time to make other adjustments to ensure that safety — not revenue — is driving this initiative.
Most importantly, the city should be resetting traffic signals to lengthen the time when all traffic at an intersection has a red light. Evidence suggests that would do more than cameras to reduce the incidence of crashes in intersections.
Red light cameras are no panacea. They won't prevent red light running by drunken drivers, distracted drivers, drivers who don't see the light or drivers who are fleeing from police. Some jurisdictions have reported that after the installation of red light cameras, right-angle or T-bone accidents are reduced but rear-end accidents increase because drivers slam on the brakes to avoid getting a ticket. Cameras work primarily on drivers who might otherwise push to get through an intersection as the light changes but don't want to risk getting a ticket.
In coming months, City Council members should be parties to the development of the rules and the writing of the contract with the vendor to ensure that the emphasis of this program is safety, not cash for city coffers.