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Crashes drop 29 percent at Tampa's red light camera intersections

Published Jan. 5, 2013

TAMPA — Crashes at intersections with red light cameras fell by nearly a third the year after Tampa officials installed the technology, police records show.

Overall, the number of accidents at the 17 monitored intersections dropped from 157 during the year before the red light cameras were installed to 112 the year after — a decrease of nearly 29 percent.

"These cameras save lives," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Friday.

"When we set out a year ago to do this, our goal was to change behavior and to minimize the risk that our citizens and neighbors and friends and family members would get killed by someone busting a red light at these intersections," the mayor said. "I think we have changed behaviors, and I think it was the right decision, and I think the data proves it."

Tampa's experience is the opposite of what happened in St. Petersburg, where the total number of crashes jumped 10 percent at the 10 intersections with cameras during the program's first year.

But the results in Tampa are consistent with what happened after Hillsborough County officials installed red light cameras at six intersections in unincorporated Hillsborough in 2009. At those locations, accidents with injuries declined from 62 in 2008 to 31 in 2010.

Tampa has 34 cameras watching various approaches to the 17 intersections. The red light camera intersections with the most crashes include Hillsborough Avenue at 22nd Street, Adamo Drive at 50th Street, Waters Avenue at Florida Avenue, and Dale Mabry Highway at Kennedy Boulevard, according to police records.

Buckhorn said the number of monitored intersections is likely to rise.

"I don't know where yet," he said. "That will be determined by where, in our estimation, the high-accident intersections are."

On Thursday, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported that crashes are less frequent at red light intersections in 41 of 73 communities that participated in a statewide survey. Accidents were more frequent in 11 of the jurisdictions. The rest either reported no change or didn't have enough information for the survey, which covered July 2011 to June 2012.

In a statement Friday, the Florida League of Cities said red light cameras aren't the answer for every community, but they often serve a purpose.

"This technology has been proven to help authorities punish lawbreakers, reduce dangerous T-bone crashes and change the behavior of those drivers who selfishly choose to run red lights," the league said.

A red light camera violation means a $158 fine for the registered owner of the vehicle that ran the signal. Of that, $83 goes to the state, while $75 stays with the city.

During the 2012 budget year, Tampa's net revenues from the cameras totaled $2.3 million — exceeding the $2 million originally budgeted. Those net revenues were what was left after the state's share and the city paid a $1 million fee to the cameras' operator, American Traffic Solutions of Scottsdale, Ariz.

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Still, not everyone has been convinced. City Council member Frank Reddick, one of three to vote against the cameras, remains skeptical. A 29 percent decline is a "major drop," he said, and he wants to see the data behind the numbers.

"Until I can review the data and evaluate it, I still have some hesitation," he said. He also wants to see revenue from the cameras channeled into new sidewalks and other safety infrastructure, particularly in his inner-city district.

Reddick has not been the only skeptic. Researchers at the University of South Florida's College of Public Health reported in 2008 that studies from Virginia, North Carolina and Ontario showed red light cameras drive up crash numbers and injuries as drivers jam on the brakes at monitored intersections.

But Tampa police say evidence shows that red light cameras lead motorists to drive more safely. Not only are the number of crashes down, but the number of red light violations has dropped.

In November 2011, the first month the city started levying fines, police issued 8,174 violations to drivers photographed running red lights.

A year later, in November 2012, that number dropped to 4,729.

City officials also say they have used discretion in issuing the violations. In November of 2011 and 2012, the vendor sent police 21,959 and 12,500 potential violations, respectively.

But for each month police approved violations in less than 38 percent of the cases.

"We use that gray area and give the driver the benefit of the doubt," police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said.

Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403.

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