Manatee approves red-light cameras

Jun 25, 2008

Herald Tribune--June 25, 2008

By Frank Gluck

MANATEE COUNTY — Soon, drivers blowing through red lights at some intersections will be mailed souvenir pictures of themselves in the act and fined for their trouble.

Manatee County commissioners on Tuesday approved a plan to install red-light cameras at certain intersections and to assess civil fines of at least $150 per violator.

In doing so, Manatee becomes the latest Florida community to circumvent the state Legislature and move forward with the monitoring devices.

Sarasota County is still studying the concept. But it has already been approved in several communities, including Collier and Hillsborough counties, and the cities of Bradenton, Gulf Breeze and Apopka.

"This is not a revenue generator," said Commissioner Ron Getman, whose public safety subcommittee helped draft the measure. "This is a safety issue. There’s not that many alternatives that are working."

Commissioners voted 6-0 to approve the plan. Its passage seemed a foregone conclusion. The proposal had the strong backing of law enforcement and the business community.

Offenders will not be considered guilty of a criminal offense, nor will they be considered guilty of a moving violation that may be reported to insurance companies.

Fines for first and second offenses will be $150. Subsequent offenses in a two-year period will have fines of $225. The maximum fine may not exceed $500.

All fines may be appealed in county court.

The county may, if a driver refuses to pay after appeals are exhausted, send the bill to a collection agency or use the courts to compel payment.

A number of details still need to be worked out before cameras are installed, including locations.

The Public Works Department, the Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Highway Patrol suggest five likely intersections: 53rd Avenue West at 34th Street; University Parkway at Lakewood Ranch Boulevard; 15th Street East at 57th Avenue; Lockwood Ridge Road at Tallevast Road; and 59th Street West at 21st Avenue.

County officials are negotiating with several potential camera vendors. All have agreed informally to pay the equipment and installation costs in exchange for a still-undetermined cut of the fine revenue, said Assistant County Administrator Karen Windon.

Once cameras are installed, drivers would be given a 60-day grace period, during which they would only be issued warnings for violations.

Support for the idea is not universal. Opponents say the cameras violate driver’s privacy rights and unfairly impose fines based on the machine’s assessment of a driver’s actions.

The University of South Florida released a study in March that said cameras dramatically increased crashes because drivers fearing tickets tend to slam on the brakes at monitored intersections. The study suggested redesigning problem intersections and lengthening yellow lights.

Harry Mendenhall, the county’s top transportation planner, said Manatee tried all those methods without success.

One trial run of extended yellow lights on State Road 64, for example, encouraged more drivers to speed through the intersection as the light changed, Mendenhall said.

"This is all about changing behavior," Mendenhall said. "We’ve tried these other things with the signal changes and it hasn’t changed behavior."

A 2005-06 study in Manatee County and Sarasota and Venice determined that cameras indeed reduce red-light running.

The Manatee test intersection, 53rd Avenue West and 34th Street, showed a reduction of 17 red-light runners on an average day to one violator during the 270-day test.

Still, a proposal to legalize the cameras statewide failed to gain traction in the Legislature for the last three years. Without that endorsement, local jurisdictions may only assess civil fines and cannot install the cameras on state roadways.

State Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, has been a primary proponent in the House. He blamed this year’s failure to pass a camera law on lingering concerns about privacy and the accuracy of camera data.

He said he is "excited" by Manatee’s decision. "It’s one of those things that takes time to educate the Legislature, to educate the people that this is a safety thing," Reagan said. "I’m happy cities and counties are moving forward with this."