Poor results from red-light cameras

Published Dec. 19, 2012

As the St. Petersburg City Council weighs the fate of the city's red-light cameras today — a program Mayor Bill Foster wants to expand — it should acknowledge that money is the likely deciding factor. One year after St. Petersburg joined a host of other local governments seeking to raise revenue under the guise of making the streets safer, the results are far from satisfying. Without intervention by the council, Foster can expand the program, more city drivers will face $158 tickets, and the impact on traffic safety will be debatable.

Today's discussion comes after the council discovered from a private citizen that the mayor was planning to add nine more cameras to 22 already installed at 10 intersections across the city. Then an initially incomplete report from City Hall staff failed to include a 10 percent increase in total crashes at the intersections, as the Tampa Bay Times' Mark Puente recently reported.

City staff then added the data, claiming the omission was an oversight. But the results seem to bolster what critics have long claimed are the downside of red-light cameras. While crashes caused by red-light runners in the 22 intersections filmed by the cameras decreased by 43 percent in the first year of implementation, rear-end collisions were up 44 percent — significantly higher than at other high-crash intersections in the city without cameras.

Even revenue isn't a clear-cut win. The city collected just $707,226 in traffic fines, about 17 percent less than had been projected and $281,000 less than what the vendor, American Traffic Systems, was paid to run the cameras. The state was the biggest winner, collecting a combined $1.8 million.

During the recent recession, cash-strapped local governments in Florida embraced this new technology as a way to raise revenue and allegedly make streets safer. But now some are deciding they are more trouble than they are worth with less-than-expected revenues and, in some cases, additional legal costs. Last week, the Collier County Commission, one of the first local governments in Florida to install the cameras, voted 3-2 to get rid of them. The question today for St. Petersburg council members is whether the potential for a little more revenue outweighs the ambiguous traffic data. It doesn't appear to be worth it.