Are red light cameras working? Florida lawmakers, Vision Zero consider best practices for future

When Smartgrowth America published the 2016 Dangerous By Design report detailing the epidemic of non-motorist traffic deaths across the United States, Florida metro areas claimed a chilling slice of notoriety: Among the top 10 most deadly metro areas on the report's Pedestrian Danger Index, Florida claimed eight spaces on the list, including Gulf coast regions Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater and North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton.

Legislators, local governments and law enforcement agencies across the state are seeking solutions rooted in better roadway design and engineering, education and traffic law enforcement to combat the crisis of public health on Florida streets that is outlined by the Pedestrian Danger Index.

While no solution is 'one size fits all' for every region, cyclist and pedestrian safety advocates such as Hillsborough County's Vision Zero say they envision a light at the end of a grim tunnel as they work toward a goal of zero pedestrian traffic deaths.

Whether or not there will be a traffic infraction detractor installed at that light at the end of the tunnel, however, is currently a question circulating among county and city governments across the state, as House and Senate legislators weigh the pros and cons of red light cameras -- and the possibility of eliminating them entirely from Florida roadways.

In early 2017, two pieces of legislation were introduced in the Florida House and Senate to eliminate red light cameras (RLCs) from Florida's roadways. While Senate Bill 630 failed to make it past the Transportation Committee, House Bill 6007 passed in a 91-22 vote in late March, and moves to the Senate, where lawmakers will once again consider repealing provisions related to the installation and use of RLCs in city and county jurisdictions across Florida by July 2020. 

The battle over the red light camera

The buzz around Florida's red light cameras has been contentious ever since RLC provisions were first introduced in 2010. Today, lawmakers, local county and city governments, and traffic safety advocates continue to debate the efficacy of traffic infraction detectors in reducing collisions, serious injury and death at some of Florida's most dangerous intersections. 

Proponents insist that the presence of the cameras saves lives as well as taxpayer dollars by eliminating the need to station officers to enforce traffic law at intersections where cameras can do the work equitably and fairly.

"We here at the Sheriff's Office want to make sure our resources are being allocated toward stopping fatalities, serious injuries and crashes -- in that order," says Major Alan Hill of HCSO's District II. Hill is also a member of the Vision Zero "Consistent and Fair'' Action Track, which places an emphasis on equitable law enforcement and education. "We want to do everything possible to warn folks to self correct. A citation should be seen as a last resort because at that point, if we are stepping in, it means everything else before [the citation] has failed," Hill adds.

Hillsborough MPO Executive Director Beth Alden also notes:

"When we think about being consistent and fair, we have to consider: Do we treat everyone equally -- in different neighborhoods, on different roadways? Does every driver receive the same level of scrutiny and enforcement? Red light cameras don't care what roadway you're on, what neighborhood you live in, or what is the color of your skin. They only care if you put yourself and others in danger by running a red light." 

In terms of pedestrian safety, a Red Light Camera Summary Report conducted by Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FLHSMV) and published in 2016 denotes a nearly 20 percent reduction in red light crashes involving non-motorists over a three-year period at 148 intersections with red light cameras in 28 cities and counties across the state.

Opponents of the cameras, however, cite statistics from the same report indicating that RLC-installed intersections saw a 10 percent increase in all vehicular crashes and a 26.8 percent increase in incapacitating injury crashes over the same period. Those in opposition to traffic infraction detractors also view the $158 RLC citations as a money-grab by the state, local governments and law enforcement. 

The Department of Revenue indicates that RLC violation fines raked in nearly $60 million for the state in 2016, with cities and counties collecting $53 million. Approximately half of that money is allocated to red light camera companies like American Traffic Solutions (ATS), which holds the lion's share of RLC contracts in 46 jurisdictions throughout Florida. Red light camera companies like ATS earn, on average, approximately $4,250 per month from each RLC. 

A tale of two cities: RLCs in St. Pete and Tampa

As state legislators debate the future of Florida's red light cameras, the neighboring cities of St. Pete and Tampa examine the role of traffic infraction detractors in promoting safer streets in their own jurisdictions.

The City of St. Pete shut down its RLC program in 2014, following what Evan Mary, Director of Transportation and Parking Management, says was a successful effort to encourage more mindful motorist behavior. 

"It was always intended to have a short lifespan. The number of tickets went way down because people were running fewer red lights," Mory says of St. Pete's 2011-2014 RLC program.

The experiment indicated that St. Pete motorists who were on the lookout for red light cameras experienced a spillover effect, resulting in more cautious driving both at intersections with traffic infraction detractors and those without.

Today, Mory adds, "we continue to track overall crashes at the [former] camera intersections and we have not seen a spike in crashes since the cameras were removed."

The City of Tampa, on the other hand, renewed its contract with ATS in 2014, and today includes 55 RLCs at 21 intersections. Although RLC opponents accuse local governments of bloating their coffers with RLC violation fines, city officials argue that the citations are an invaluable asset in funding traffic and pedestrian safety improvements at high-impact locations.

"The question [in 2014] was this: 'We're giving people tickets, but are we doing anything to really make the streets safer?' The City Council agreed to pursue the contract if some of the money would go back into transportation and improving the road system," says Jean Duncan, Director of Transportation and Stormwater Services for the City of Tampa. "We've since done several projects to put money back into key corridors with high accident rates.''

Duncan cites a number of projects along a high-crash corridor -- Hillsborough Avenue, between 40th Street and Nebraska Avenue near Middleton High School. Students Shenika Davis (15), Norma Velasquez-Cabrera (15) and Alexis Miranda (17) were fatally struck by motor vehicles in three separate incidents between 2011-2015. "There was a lot of focus on that particular roadway and an understanding that we need to do more to make it safer," Duncan says. 

RLC fines allotted to the City of Tampa were used along Hillsborough Avenue to create pedestrian markings, change signal timings to better accommodate slower-moving foot traffic, bring pedestrian heads to ADA standards, install flashing yellow signal heads to improve traffic management, and provide upgrades to cabinet controllers, which Duncan says enables the City to manage signals more proactively and to determine and respond to maintenance issues more promptly.

"The improvements on Hillsborough Avenue cost $250,000, all of which came from red light camera citations. … It's been a very small sliver of our budget, but we've been able to do some important projects with it that add to pedestrian safety. We wouldn't have had that funding if we hadn't received it from the red light fund," Duncan says.

She adds that similar projects, amounting to $125,000 in RLC violation fines, were completed to Adamo Drive at 50th Street. Key intersections at Busch Boulevard and Florida Avenue, as well as Busch and Nebraska Avenue, are on the city's docket for infrastructure improvements in 2017 using up to $200,000 RLC citation fees.

"We try to do the projects where we're really having particular safety issues or a large population of pedestrians on the road. The projects are both a little bit reactive and a little bit proactive," Duncan explains. 

Engineer, educate, enforce

"I've been in traffic law enforcement in various capacities throughout my career, and it seems very simple to me. ... What Vision Zero says is that we should do everything we possibly can to prevent first -- and only when prevention fails must we take serious law enforcement actions," says HCSO's Major Hill. 

Hill believes that Hillsborough County's RLC system is a fair and effective program, but would like to see traffic infraction detractor systems regulated more consistently across the state -- in order for them to be truly effective in facilitating long-term changes in motorist behavior.

"We want enforcement to be perceived as fair and impartial, and designed to solve an issue. It all circles  back to how we can impact fatalities and serious injuries among vulnerable road users who are at the greatest risk? How can we best focus on those groups?" Hill says.

He notes that while the changes will inevitably occur slowly, Vision Zero's efforts to take a data-based approach to promoting equitable, education-based training in better motorist, cyclist and pedestrian behaviors will ultimately bring positive results -- regardless of the currently undecided fate of Tampa's red light camera program. 

"Everyone wants to see change, and see it rapidly,'' Hill says. "But I think we have to accept with Vision Zero that if we adopt and buy into it, and commit as a community, the true successes will be seen long after we've retired and gone. It can't be 'we'll commit to this for three years and move on,' though. We need to stick to it.''

''To me what's important is saving lives. I just think that this success is going to be seen long after we're gone," Hill says.

Follow this link to read the Dangerous by Design study.

Read more stories about Vision Zero in 83 Degrees.
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Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.