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Do red light cameras really add safety?

TAMPA, Florida -- Get caught running a red light at certain Florida intersections and you'll get smacked with a $158 fine - no questions asked. But a 10 News investigation revealed many cities and counties with red light cameras aren't held to the same standard. And many claims about red light camera safety aren't standing up to scrutiny.

The Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act, the 2010 law that legalized red light cameras (RLC) in Florida, mandates any city or county that issues the automated tickets must submit annual "statistical data and information" requested by the Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles (DHSMV). 

But nearly half of the communities in the state failed to answer the DHSMV's three simple questions on crash data:

  • Have the number of overall crashes gone up or down since RLC installation?
  • Have the number of side-impact crashes gone up or down since RLC installation?
  • Have the number of rear-impact crashes gone up or down since RLC installation?

TIMELINE: 10 News' Short Yellows Investigation
MAP: Short Yellows in Your Neighborhood

Last year, nearly 70 cities and counties in Florida issued more than $100 million in red light camera fines. Almost all identified safety as their primary goal for the program. And the top vendor for RLC equipment, American Traffic Solutions, says 90% of drivers who receive a ticket never receive a second violation.

The city of Tampa says they've issued more than 1,000 fewer citations per month in the program's second year, compared to its first. 

"Nobody wants to write a $158 check to the city," said Tampa Police Department (TPD) spokesperson Andrea Davis. "But people are getting the message. We're issuing a lot less citations."

As drivers learn where the city's cameras are, they are altering their behavior. But even as violation numbers plummet, the crash numbers are not. While the city had been touting a 29% drop in crashes at RLC intersections since the technology was installed, a recent TPD analysis of the crash data showed the drop was only 11%. The city reported 121 crashes at RLC intersections from Nov. 2010 to Oct. 2011, and 108 crashes after installation from Nov. 2011 to Oct. 2012.  TPD could not provide more recent data.

When TPD looked closer at the numbers, they also concluded most accidents at the intersections had nothing to do with red-light running.

"It appears to be nothing to do with the red-light cameras," Davis said, explaining the change in crash numbers. "It's just someone not paying attention, making a left-hand turn and not seeing oncoming traffic."

The finding echoes analysis from an engineer hired by Hillsborough County, who recently told commission that the majority of red-light running occurs in the very first second of red, and these ticketed drivers "do not result in a large number of crashes."

Because most traffic signals remain "all-red" for 1-2 seconds after traffic is stopped in any given direction, most of the drivers ticketed by red light cameras are not likely to cause accidents.

Davis said three years of data would provide a more complete picture of the cameras' impact, but the agency is encouraged so far.

And Tampa was one of 33 communities across the state that reported drops in crashes at RLC intersections following the technology's installation. But 16 reported increases, including Clearwater and Temple Terrace. 

State law also requires cities and counties with red light cameras to answer the state's questions about rear-end and side-impact crash statistics, but cities like Tampa say they cannot track those numbers. 

Across Florida, 25 municipalities submitted no crash data to the state this year, while another 12 failed to answer all three of the state's crash questions. Twenty municipalities submitted their data late (after the state's October 1 statutory deadline), while six still have not responded to the state.

In greater Tampa Bay, only Gulfport, Hillsborough Co., Oldsmar, Port Richey, St. Petersburg, and Temple Terrace submitted all of the state's requested statistics.

Below are each municipalities' responses to the state-mandated statistical survey, although responses were not checked for accuracy by 10 News or the DHSMV:

City Overall crashes since RLC installed Side-impact crashes since RLC installed Rear-end crashes since RLC installed
Bradenton Decreased; unable to tell by how much No answer No answer
Brooksville No answer No answer No answer
Clearwater No answer No answer No answer
Gulfport Decreased by 26% Increased by 25% Decreased by 31%
Haines City No answer No answer No answer
Hillsborough Co. Decreased by 43% Decreased by 71% Decreased by 31%
Kenneth City No answer No answer No answer
Lakeland No answer No answer No answer
Manatee Co. No answer No answer No answer
New Port Richey No answer No answer No answer
Oldsmar Remained the same Remained the same Remained the same
Port Richey Decreased by 50% Decreased by 300%
(Note: impossible ratio)
Decreased by 50%
Sarasota Decreased by 3% No answer No answer
S. Pasadena No answer No answer No answer
St. Petersburg Decreased by 4% Decreased by 14% Decreased by 12%
Tampa Decreased by 13% No answer No answer
Temple Terrace Increased by 40% Increased by 200% Increased by 9%
Source: DHSMV

 "The reason we did this was to save lives," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, adding that he didn't read much into crash statistics. "The folks that are getting caught are folks that are breaking the law...we're not fabricating that, we're not making this up - they are running red lights."

Recent by the Virginia Transportation Research Council and Texas A&M Transportation Institute suggests RLC can reduce dangerous side-impact collisions at intersections where a lot of drivers run red lights. However, rear-end collisions sometimes rise at those same intersections as drivers may stop more suddenly. 

The research also indicated intersections that did not have existing red light-running problems prior to RLC installation saw increased rear-end collisions without the drop in side-impact collisions too.

Retired City of Tampa engineer Scott Shaw, creator of www.StopCarCrashes.com, says he doubts the city's RLC have any impact on crash rates since they target more safe drivers than dangerous drivers.

"(Bad drivers) will adjust their driving around the cameras," Shaw said. "But as soon as they get away from those cameras, they'll go back to driving unsafely."

Shaw says he suspects the city's overall crash rates won't change much from a few dozen cameras. A better approach would be to not disclose where the cameras are, so the most dangerous drivers would be forced to correct their behavior at every intersection.  However, state law currently requires disclosure of camera locations.

"You'd be shocked how many times we reduced accidents 40% at one area, but total accidents remained unchanged," Shaw said, stressing the need for a city-wide traffic study.

He added that technology could be used to target tailgaters, taking dangerous drivers off the street.

But camera-provider ATS maintains the cameras reduce side-impact - or "T-bone" crashes - that have made Florida one of the deadliest states in the country.

"Red Light Safety Cameras Reduce the risk (of crashes)," added Melissa Wandall, the Bradenton mother who lost her husband 10 years ago during a red light-running crash. She later campaigned to get the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act passed, and now works for a red light camera-advocacy group affiliated with ATS.

"There are a lot of great people working the camera program that are doing their best to create and manage a program that- at the end of the day- saves lives," Wandall said.

Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.com.


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