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John Romano: USF study makes it harder to claim red light cameras are safety measure

The latest version of a study done by University of South Florida researchers disputes an analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that red-light cameras save lives. The IIHS report was cited by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman in explaining his support for the cameras during last year’s campaign.
Published Jan. 23, 2014

You have to believe red light cameras save lives.

You have to believe they reduce serious accidents, and protect innocent drivers from harm. You have to believe they make us all better drivers.

Otherwise, they are just a scam.

That's the crux of the argument, isn't it? Public safety vs. legalized looting?

And sadly enough, it's getting harder and harder to believe public safety is foremost in the hearts of the people who stand to make a profit off red light cameras.

Particularly when there have been questions about rigging the timing of yellow lights, unofficial quotas and tickets for right-hand turns police would normally ignore.

And now here comes the latest version of a study done by three University of South Florida professors that disputes a widely quoted claim that the cameras save lives.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety did a before/after analysis in 2011 of communities with and without cameras and declared that more than 200 lives would be spared annually if every major city had red light cameras.

USF's researchers called that conclusion, more or less, a joke.

They say the IIHS study was skewed by the results from a single city (Phoenix) that had an abnormally high rate of fatalities in the years preceding the installation of cameras. The IIHS attributed the subsequent decrease in fatalities to the cameras, but the USF report argued it was just a natural progression back to a normal level.

USF professor Etienne Pracht compared it to measuring the heights of an adult and a child, and then giving the child a cup of sugar daily. When the child grows and the adult does not, does it mean the sugar was responsible for the growth?

"It's a classic apples and oranges comparison,'' he said.

The IIHS report is significant because it was cited by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman in explaining his support for red light cameras during last year's campaign.

And now USF's criticism of that report has caught the eye of new City Council member Amy Foster, who is leaning toward voting to shut down the program.

"The thing with statistics is you can make them say whatever you want them to say,'' Foster said. "But having an outside study like USF's carries a little more weight.''

Does this mean St. Petersburg could do away with red light cameras next month?

Foster's presence means the usual 5-3 vote in favor of cameras could turn into a 4-4 deadlock, which would still keep the program alive.

However, council members Charlie Gerdes and Karl Nurse have inquired about loosening the criteria so drivers who run a red light by one-tenth of a second will no longer get tickets. The council does not have the authority to change the contract, but it could threaten to shut the cameras down completely unless changes are agreed upon.

Council member Darden Rice, who is also leaning toward voting against the cameras, said she is willing to listen to arguments in favor and said she will suggest any revenue generated from tickets be put into the transportation budget and be used for pedestrian safety improvements. "Running a red light is one of the most dangerous things a driver can do, so I don't want to take this lightly,'' Rice said. "My problem is that there has always been that feeling that this was more of a revenue-producing scheme than a public safety issue.''


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