Tampa and St. Petersburg are the latest cash-strapped Florida cities to consider installing red- light cameras at dangerous intersections. Both communities say the goal is deterring red-light runners. But they must guard against using the technology just to raise revenue.
Tampa will solicit bids within a few weeks from companies to install and operate 10 cameras at trouble-plagued intersections. They could be operational by fall if the City Council approves. In St. Petersburg, city officials are still examining the technology, costs and crash data in anticipation of a City Council discussion next month.
Proponents credit red-light cameras with reducing accidents and saving lives by discouraging leadfoots from blowing through intersections. The cameras snap a photograph of a vehicle in the intersection, capturing an image of a traffic light and a vehicle's license plate. At a later time, officials determine whether the evidence warrants a ticket.
Studies have shown that while cameras have helped reduce the number of T-bone crashes at intersections, rear-end collisions go up because drivers aware of the cameras hit the brakes prematurely in an abundance of caution to avoid a ticket.
Locally, cameras are already used in Hillsborough County, Temple Terrace, Port Richey, Brooksville and Lakeland. Tampa police believe the cameras could help reduce deadly T-bone crashes at intersections, which accounted for 10 percent of the city's fatal accidents in 2009.
But the real challenge with the technology is to create a system where safety — not financial gain for either a private vendor or government — is the primary goal.
Tampa has rightly proposed having the private vendor operate the cameras, but requiring a police officer to make the call on whether to issue a ticket. While Tampa has not decided how much a ticket would cost, violators are typically charged $125 for a first offense.
Among the outstanding issues: How will an automobile owner, who receives the ticket regardless of who is at the wheel, appeal? How would the vendor be compensated: flat rate or per-ticket fee? And how would the city spend its share of the money?
And there must be safeguards to ensure accountability. The cameras should not stop the city from making other improvements at intersections, from adding to the lag time between light changes to better marking traffic signals at high-volume intersections.
Finally, city police and traffic departments must commit to regularly reviewing the cameras' effectiveness — perhaps opting for a shorter contract initially to ensure the program warrants continuing.
Putting cameras in place will surely generate tickets, but the purpose here is to reduce the number of crashes, especially serious ones. That is the only standard by which cameras should be judged, regardless of the cash flow.