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Open road syndrome? Tampa Bay speeds up during the crisis

Red-light data from Tampa shows drivers are stepping on the gas on emptier roads

The data is in, Tampa, and it’s clear. As roads emptied because of the pandemic, your feet on the collective gas pedal got heavier.

Consider the man waiting to cross Busch Boulevard at Nebraska Avenue at 9:59 a.m. March 25. Good thing he waited. A blue Ford Mustang blew through at 71 mph.

Or take the gray Chevy Camaro with the racing stripes eastbound and in a hurry at 3:46 p.m. April 5, flying through a red light at East Hillsborough Avenue and North 22nd Street. That car was also traveling 71 mph,

No, it’s not your imagination: Speeds have increased by at least 7 percent through early this week, according to more than a month’s worth of data collected by the city’s red light camera vendor from 54 cameras. Most drivers who blow through red lights are speeding.

The findings, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times through a public records request, show a troubling trend, according to Charles Territo, spokesman for Verra Mobility, the Mesa, Ariz.-based red light camera vendor.

The cameras, intended to catch drivers blowing through red lights, also capture the speed at which cars are traveling the moment that dreaded blinding flash signals a violation.

“The violations that are being captured are being captured at some pretty high speeds,” Territo said.

Although traffic has dropped by 30 percent in Tampa, the rate of red light violators has increased by two-thirds compared to the same time frame a year ago. The company’s data also shows a rise in speed around the country.

Translation: Fewer cars have been on the road since March 1, but more of them appear to be lead-footing it.

Around Tampa Bay, officials say they too are seeing some increase in speeding, at least anecdotally. Call it open-road syndrome. Fewer cars tempt some drivers to indulge their Fast and Furious fantasies.

“Traffic congestion is actually a traffic calming mechanism," said Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter. “People forget that.”

At the same time, many area law enforcement agencies have stopped pulling people over for all but extreme speeding to avoid the risk of coronavirus infections. Statewide, moving violations are down 92 percent due to a mix of less traffic and social distancing policies by many police departments.

Related: Traffic tickets down 92 percent in Florida

In Tampa, police issued 586 traffic citations this March compared to 1,266 last March — a drop of 54 percent.

But law enforcement continues to preach the gospel of common sense.

“Just because the roads are vacant doesn’t mean you ignore the law,” warned Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins.

Highway Patrol data comparing March 2019 and March 2020 show motorists ticketed for driving over 100 mph declined slightly in Hillsborough — from 14 to 10 — but tripled in Pinellas to 36. Drivers ticketed for blazing along at 30 mph over the posted limit fell by half in Hillsborough to 22, but doubled in Pinellas to 101.

St. Petersburg Police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said the Sunshine City hasn’t seen much of a problem with speeding during the crisis. In fact, crash data for the bay area’s second-largest city shows a decrease from last year. From March 14 to April 14, there were 508 accidents in the city compared to 856 during the same period last year.

“We’re seeing reductions perhaps because there’s not much of a nightlife anymore,” she said.

So, silver lining, right?

Not so fast, says Territo. Fewer drivers might mean fewer crashes, but more of them are speeding, the recent data from Tampa indicates. And habits are hard to break, he said, so when we reach whatever the new normal will be, it might contain a speed-demon element.

"Over time, behavior normalizes and people may change their habits,” Territo said,

It’s not just the cameras noticing.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman said last week at the county’s Emergency Policy Group meeting that residents have complained to her about speeding more than anything else lately.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has heard the calls to reign in speedsters, too.

Clearly, reckless driving is a danger, she said. Two recent fatal wrecks on Bayshore Boulevard and on Adamo Drive have made that obvious.

Related: Bayshore speeding prompts calls for solutions

The coronavirus pandemic has made the city sensitive to handing out a speeding ticket to someone who might be struggling to keep food on the table or the lights on, Castor said.

But common sense should prevail, she said.

“Individuals need to understand that just because there’s less traffic on the roadways does not mean that the speed limit is not in effect,” she said. " I mean, we’ve seen some horrific examples of what speed can do on our roadways."

correction: Tampa's red-light vendor is Verra Mobility. An earlier version of this story had an incorrect company name.

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