While legislators make another attempt to remove red-light cameras from Florida’s intersections, some North Florida city officials fear the ban’s potential impact on public safety statewide.
Jeff Brandes, chairman of the Florida Senate Transportation Committee, filed SB 144 on Sept. 4, banning the use of red-light cameras in Florida. Brandes said he believes they are now being used solely for revenue.
The cameras are used in about 76 jurisdictions across Florida, and according to the Florida Department of Revenue, they produced more than $62.5 million for the state between July 2012 and June 2013. The fine for running a red light is $158, and the majority goes to the state. Local municipalities and the camera operation companies get the rest.
Drivers can receive tickets for running red lights or failing to stop before turning right on red. The cameras installed at intersections capture a photo of the driver’s license plate number and a video of the incident. Local police officials review the evidence and decide whether the citation is approved.
Unlike tickets given out by officers in person, the red-light camera citations don’t add points to a driver’s record.
Officials in some small North Florida cities with heavy traffic said the cameras are vital to the protection of drivers.
Orange Park Police Chief Gary Goble said the city, population 8,400, has around 70,000 cars traveling through it daily. He said people pass through Orange Park on their way to other cities, such as Jacksonville, because Highway 17 acts as a feeder road between Clay County and Duval County.
Drivers take Highway 17 and Kingsley Ave. to and from work, leaving Orange Park in heavy morning and afternoon traffic. The city becomes more susceptible to accidents, he said.
“For a small town, 70,000 is a lot of cars and a lot of traffic,” Goble said. “If we had just the 8,400 residents of Orange Park to worry about it would be one thing, but we have 70,000 cars coming through our intersections. That’s a lot of traffic and a lot of people trying to make that yellow light, trying to make it through the intersection. It is definitely a safety issue.”
Side impact crashes, which occur when drivers run red lights in busy intersections, have become common and are sometimes fatal, Goble said.
More than 2.3 million intersection-related crashes were reported in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, resulting in more than 7,770 fatalities and approximately 733,000 injury crashes nationwide.
Orange Park Mayor Jim Renninger said a pregnant woman and her unborn child were killed a few years ago when her vehicle was t-boned by a red-light runner.
“Typically when you have a visitor come to Jacksonville, you tell them to count to two at intersections because people don’t typically abide by red lights,” Renninger said.
The city installed seven cameras in April 2013 at problematic intersections such as Highway 17 and Kingsley Avenue; Debarry Avenue and Kingsley Avenue; and Highway 17 and Loring Avenue. Officials said they have issued around 1,100 citations at each of these locations in July and August.
Goble said the cameras have been effective so far. The number of drivers running lights and causing accidents has decreased because drivers have become more aware at intersections, he said.
“I think it changes the way people react at intersections,” Goble said. “They become more cognizant of red lights, yellow lights and what they need to do at intersections. It changes their behavior and that’s what you want it to do. If you can change their behavior and keep people from running these red lights, then your job is done.”
He said if the legislation is passed, officials are taking away a vital tool FOR law enforcement. Brandes, the bill’s sponsor, disagrees with the camera’s proclaimed effects.
“This program was originally sold as being about safety,” Brandes told Michael Van Sickler of the Tampa Bay Times when he filed the bill. “I have come to believe that it’s now about revenue.”
Orange Park isn’t the only small town in North Florida that has a high traffic volume. Palatka city commissioner Allegra Kitchens said her city has a population of less than 10,000 but more than 35,000 cars travel through there on a daily basis.
Numbers peak at around 80,000 cars in high season, she said.
Because Palatka has the only bridge to cross St. John’s River, Kitchens said people have to go through town to travel from Gainesville to St. Augustine.
Because of the high volume of traffic, she said, the city has also had an issue with red-light runners. Before the city implemented a red-light camera program, Palatka Police set up an operation at the intersection of State Road 20 and State Road 19 to see the evidence firsthand.
“In one hour, 31 people ran red lights and police wrote 23 tickets,” Kitchens said. “While they were standing on the side of the road with their lights flashing, people ran red lights right in front of the patrol cars. That’s a horrible statistic.”
She said there is a big issue with people running red lights because they’re determined to break the law and get away with it. She said red-light cameras are vital because they slow people down and make them more aware of their surroundings.
“The camera does not lie,” Kitchens said.
Kitchens said the city has only made enough money to pay back the costs of the installations, which comes to about $15,000 total for the city’s four cameras, over a period of four to five months.
“We’ve gotten a few thousand dollars on it and that’s not anything to write home about right now,” Kitchens said, “but the important thing is saving lives, which could be my life because if I’d get a dollar for every time I’ve almost been hit in the past two months, I’d take you out to a steak dinner.”