Cameras take aim at red-light runners

Dec 3, 2008

South Florida Sun-Sentinel--December 2, 2008

By Ihosvani Rodriguez

Cities throughout South Florida are giving the green light to red-light cameras.

Advocates hail them as a safety measure — a way to get folks to slow down and avoid crashes.

“The single largest complaint I get every day is traffic related. Speed and red lights,” said Hollywood Commissioner Heidi O’Sheehan, whose city tentatively approved using the cameras last month.

Critics say cities are using cameras as a money-making tool during tough economic times.

“First time I heard about the cameras was during the budget process and the amount of money we could be getting as a city,” said Keith London, a commissioner in Hallandale Beach, which in June approved up to three cameras. “We should be more concerned with improving intersections and synchronizing the lights and making the traffic flow better to discourage people from running red lights.”

He points to a recent University of South Florida study that says the cameras actually increase crashes, particularly rear-end collisions. The study says such collisions occur when a driver, fearing a citation for running a red light, stops short, just as the driver behind speeds up to beat the light. Researchers say Florida’s large population of elderly drivers, who tend to have slower reflexes, heightens the risk.

But in Aventura, where cameras have been up since July, and in Pembroke Pines, where one camera has been up for weeks, police say they have not seen a single rear-end collision.

About 40 cities in Florida, including at least a dozen in South Florida, have installed or approved the cameras, which take shots and videos of vehicles as they pass under a red traffic signal. The images are examined by police, and if there’s a violation, a citation goes to the vehicle’s owner.

In Orlando, 6,025 tickets have been issued in 2ƒ¦1/2 months, and so far $310,000 has been collected. Last month, the city heard the first set of 11 appeals. Only one succeeded.

Aventura is the only South Florida city to begin issuing fines instead of warnings. Though no money has been collected yet, the camera system has generated 847 citations since Oct. 11, each carrying a $125 fine.

“It’s still too early for us to say it’s been a success” at preventing accidents, said spokesman Lt. Michael Bentolila.

Here’s what you need to know about the cameras: ƒ| Which South Florida communities have approved cameras? Among the bigger ones: Hollywood, Pembroke Pines, Hallandale Beach, Palm Beach County, Delray Beach, Aventura, Coral Gables, Homestead, North Miami, North Bay Village, Sunny Isles Beach and Sweetwater. Fort Lauderdale and Sunrise are considering them. ƒ| How does it work?Depends on the vendor. Typically, the camera takes a shot of the vehicle as it approaches the red light, and a second shot of the license plate. A video is also recorded. A police official identifies the violation and a citation is sent to the car’s registered owner, who is responsible for paying the fine even if the owner wasn’t driving. ƒ|

What are the penalties? Cities are considering fines from $75 to $135. State legislators have not approved the use of cameras, so infractions are dealt with at the local level as code violations. No points go on a driver’s license. Owners can dispute the citations before a special magistrate. ƒ| Who gets the money?In some cases, the cities pay the vendors monthly fees and keep the rest of the money. Other places, such as Hollywood, are looking at keeping up to 80 percent of the revenue and sending the rest to the camera company. ƒ|

How can I appeal? Most cities plan a special magistrate to hear appeals. Last month in Orlando, a Winter Park man successfully argued he was trying to sell his Isuzu Rodeo SUV, and a prospective buyer on a test drive was the one caught running a red light. ƒ| Will intersections be safer? The research is inconclusive. The University of South Florida study found red-light fatalities, about 110 a year, account for only 4 percent of traffic fatalities in Florida. Researchers also looked at three red-light camera studies in North Carolina, Virginia and Ontario. Each showed a significant increase in rear-end collisions.

However, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety says a number of studies in recent years, including one by Iowa State University in 2007, show the cameras reduce red-light violations by up to 50 percent and injury crashes by up to 30 percent.

Dallas police said in August that right-angle accidents at intersections had dropped by 53 percent since 2006. In one year, fines topped $12 million.

The Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.