PolitiFact Florida: Experts disagree on red light cameras' effects

Published Aug. 2, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — Hopefuls for St. Petersburg mayor are divided on the city's red light camera program.

Mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford argued in her response to a Tampa Bay Times questionnaire that the city's technology is flawed, the cost to appeal is "prohibitively high" and unfair, and the program should be stopped. Mayor Bill Foster, who pushed for the cameras, still supports them.

Mayoral candidate Rick Kriseman aligns with Foster. "I support them for the purposes of public safety. … The fact is that red light cameras change driver behavior and cut down on the most dangerous types of accidents," Kriseman wrote.

We wanted to know if Kriseman's point is accurate.

St. Petersburg is one of about 70 municipalities in Florida with red light cameras, along with Tampa, Miami, Orlando and five other cities in Pinellas County, including Clearwater.

The St. Petersburg program started in fall 2011. Tickets for running a red light are $158.

A number of municipalities have had buyer's remorse. In Houston, a voter referendum killed the program. Collier County, Fla., commissioners voted to kill their program in December 2012 because they didn't find evidence that the cameras reduced accidents. Los Angeles officials ended their program after realizing it was difficult to pursue violators.

Still, other cities tout benefits. More than a year in, the question remains for St. Petersburg: Are the cameras reducing the most dangerous crashes?

A consultant's performance report in December concluded that the red light crash rate fell by 31 percent at St. Petersburg traffic approaches with cameras from November 2011 to October 2012, compared with the three-year average preceding it.

But the report contained omissions, such as the fact that rear-end wrecks at intersections with red light cameras jumped 44 percent and overall crashes at those intersections increased 10 percent from the previous year.

Interpretations all depend on how you dice the data, said Michael Frederick, the city's transportation manager. The consultant compared the first year of traffic data with a three-year average instead of data just for the year before. A more in-depth review is expected after three years.

Kriseman's campaign said he was talking about the effect of red light cameras in general on motorist behavior and dangerous crashes. The campaign sent us materials from national pro-camera groups, the National Coalition for Safer Roads and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in addition to a study that appeared in the Journal of Trauma in 2010.

But while those studies supported Kriseman's assertion — at least to a degree — we found other studies that did not.

That's the problem, experts say.

"There isn't a conclusive study that would say that in all circumstances that red light cameras are going to provide the safety benefits that they're looking at," said Jason Bittner, director of USF's Center for Urban Transportation Research. "It's kind of on a case-by-case basis."

Three USF researchers who have been reviewing red light camera studies say there is no consensus that red light cameras improve public safety.

They noted that some studies deemed sound by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration actually stated that injury or severe crashes increased with the cameras. Yet other studies did not factor in traffic trends, such as an overall decrease in red light running.

The professors agree that red light cameras influence driver behavior — just not for the better. "There's a difference between a driver being more aware and a driver being more skittish," said Etienne Pracht, a USF professor of health care economics.

Our ruling

Kriseman said that "red light cameras change driver behavior and cut down on the most dangerous types of accidents."

Studies show the cameras change motorist behavior. But whether they truly "cut down on the most dangerous types of accidents" is up for debate. We rate his claim Half True.

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