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Putting red light runners in focus

Richard Retting, a transportation engineer with a worldwide reputation, recently recalled a very scary place _ an intersection in St. Petersburg.

Retting, formerly a top transportation official for New York City, was in town a year ago when a colleague drove him to the intersection of 38th Avenue N and 49th Street.

The intersection itself is unremarkable, he said last week.

"But I was just astounded by the blatant red light running at that intersection," Retting said. "I had not ever seen that kind of red light running in my travels. They were not even close calls; people were running through three and four seconds after the light had changed."

Retting is regarded as the nation's leading authority on "red light cameras," which automatically take photos of vehicles running red lights. The photos are then used to fine the errant motorists.

By any measure, the cameras work well in decreasing and deterring the dangerous practice. They have been widely used in Europe and Australia for more than 20 years and are now being used around the world, including in some U.S. cities.

In Florida, however, the law effectively bars usage of red light cameras. Some people familiar with the technology are trying to change that.

And if ever a place needed protection from drivers who run red lights, St. Petersburg would be on the list.

In fact, St. Petersburg is on the list compiled by Retting's organization, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, of American cities where running red lights is most out of control. St. Petersburg is the only Florida city in the top five for the number of fatal wrecks per 100,000 residents caused by red light running.

The cameras, which take pictures only after a motorist has run the light, are beginning to take hold in the United States. From places as big as New York to as small as Oxnard, Calif., communities are embracing the technology.

Two things typically result, Retting said.

First, the number of motorists attempting to run red lights drops sharply, often in half. Not surprisingly, the numbers of traffic deaths and injuries also drop. So do property damage totals.

Second, support for the program increases locally. A majority of Oxnard residents, for example, supported a red light camera program even before it began, and the approval rating climbed to 80 percent a year later.

Fifteen states now specifically allow the use of red light cameras, though some only on a pilot basis for specific communities.

The stakes are huge. Studies show that people attempting to run red lights account for 22 percent of all crashes in urban areas.

In Florida alone, 1997 police reports listed 11,723 crashes resulting from attempts to run red lights. The crashes, in turn, left 126 people dead and 15,863 injured, many of them permanently. The property damage _ mostly to vehicles _ approached $400-million.

The most common objection to the cameras is that they somehow pose a privacy threat.

"When people say that to me, I tell them, "Then don't break the law, because that's the only time the camera takes a picture,'

" said state Rep. John Cosgrove, D-Coral Gables.

Retting, the traffic engineer, said a motorist who buys gasoline or cigarettes at a convenience store is almost certainly being videotaped more extensively than any photograph being made from running a red light.

Cosgrove previously has proposed legislation to authorize red light cameras in Florida. He said last week that he plans to give it another try in the upcoming session of the Legislature, which convenes in March.

"I used to chair the (House) insurance committee, and when I looked at red light cameras, I said, "This will lower (vehicle) insurance rates,'

" he said.

Existing law also would have to be changed. Currently, a sworn law-enforcement officer must witness the violation and stop the motorist before a ticket can be written.

With most camera systems, a picture is taken when a motorist passes through the intersection a fraction of a second after the red light changes. The amount of elapsed time is adjustable. No photo is taken of vehicles already in the intersection when the light changes.

At regular intervals, the exposed film is collected and processed. There are important variations here, but tags are checked and owners are sent tickets. A motorist who wants to challenge the ticket can review the photo.

Cosgrove, whose son is a sheriff's deputy in Orange County, said he frequently has accompanied state and local law enforcement officers on patrol.

"None of them want to deal with traffic infractions like this," he said. "The worst duty you can have is to sit at a traffic light" and wait for a motorist to run it.

Not only does it eat large amounts of an officer's time, it also can be dangerous. To catch the lawbreaker, an officer witnessing the incident from behind would have to dart through opposing traffic in the same intersection.

Cindy Sharpe, spokeswoman for Tampa-based AAA Auto Club South, said her group endorses the camera technology but has misgivings about the legislation proposed in the past couple of sessions.

Those bills were more concerned with what the red light camera vendors would get paid than they were about law enforcement, she said.

"We feel that this is a serious traffic infraction that should be overseen by a law enforcement agency," she said.

Last year's bill would have created a $52 ticket for motorists caught on film. But the same motorist caught by a police officer would have faced a much more expensive fine and loss of three license points, she said. "This is law enforcement, not revenue generation."

There are other provisions that AAA would want to review, she said, "but we're willing to sit down with proponents and see if we can reach some kind of reasonable ground that we all can agree on."

Angelo Rao, who heads St. Petersburg's traffic management department, said red light cameras have the support of professional traffic engineering organizations and would get scrutiny if they were available to St. Petersburg.

"Running red lights is such a problem here," he said. "Prevention of that kind of behavior is something that we're definitely committed to."

Running red lights

This chart shows the cities with the highest number of deaths per 100,000 residents from accidents caused when motorists ran red lights.

CITIES DEATHS

1 Phoenix 8.10

2 Mesa, Ariz. 7.08

3 Memphis, Tenn. 5.45

4 Tucson, Ariz. 5.12

5 St. Petersburg 4.95

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