RED LIGHT CAMERAS
Then again, it may not be such a happy anniversary for about 25,000 people who have received red-light running citations in Collier County during the last year.
It was one year ago this week that the county’s first red-light running cameras were installed in two approaches at the intersection of Airport-Pulling and Pine Ridge roads. Cameras were later added to 10 more approaches.
Your anniversary present: Cameras are being activated at seven more approaches starting Monday.
If the cameras have proven anything over the last year, well, they’ve certainly proven to be controversial. That isn’t necessarily bad, authorities say.
“The debate that has been going on helps safety, regardless of what side you’re on,” said Collier County sheriff’s Lt. Harold Minch, who heads up the agency’s traffic unit. “You’re talking about stopping at red lights. You’re talking about driving habits. You’re talking about what’s actually happening on the roadways.”
As bills that would regulate the use of red-light cameras statewide wind their way through the state Legislature, local officials say it’s still too early for a study that could say, definitively, whether the cameras have succeeded in making Collier roads safer. But with about a year’s-worth of data, they say there is evidence they have.
“I think it’s had a positive effect on how people drive,” said Gene Calvert, principal project manager for Collier County’s Transportation Services Division.
Still, critics contend the cameras are unconstitutional, and even some supporters question the high percentage of citations going to people who roll through right turns.
Through February, the 12 red-light cameras currently functioning in Collier County had led to the issuing of 23,883 citations, according to Collier County transportation reports. Of those citations, 85 percent — 20,313 — were issued to drivers who failed to come to a complete stop while making a right turn on red.
Collier County Commissioner Donna Fiala, who voted in favor of installing the cameras in 2008, said she was amazed at the high percentage of right-on-red citations.
“I was thinking just of the people rushing through the lights or turning left when the light is red, the big problems that cause death,” Fiala said of her vote.
During interviews with the Daily News last year, Collier residents Gina McCabe and Bob Arkes both said they supported the cameras. A year later, they still support them, but both expressed concern over the high number of right-on-red citations.
“That seems a little picky to me,” Arkes said.
In October, in part because of the high number of right-on-red citations, commissioners voted to reduce the fine for a first-time offense from $125 to $62.50. Through March 30, the cameras have generated $1,571,601 in revenue, $561,041 of which went to the vendor, American Traffic Solutions, which provides the cameras at no cost.
In 2007 and 2008 — before any cameras were installed — Collier deputies issued 8,863 and 5,026 red-light running citations respectively, according to Sheriff’s Office records. In 2009, the first year with the cameras, deputies only issued 2,446 — a drop of nearly two-thirds in two years.
When all is said and done, Minch said the cameras are fairer, and could prove to be a bargain. The $62.50 citations from the cameras don’t add points to a driver’s license, whereas the $228 citations issued by deputies come with three points.
“The three points on your license could impact you thousands of dollars,” Minch said. “This way you get a ticket for $62.50, you get the same education once you get it. You say ‘hmm, I need to stop better.’ At the same time, you get no points on your license and nothing else.”
As deputies have continued to write fewer red-light running citations, the Sheriff’s Office also has reported working fewer crashes related to red-light running — 77 in 2009, down from 132 in 2007 and 103 in 2008.
Initial concerns about the possibility of increased rear-end accidents caused by people suddenly hitting their brakes at stop lights never materialized, officials said.
“I can tell you for sure that we’re not adversely impacting the safety of the area,” said Calvert, who helped conduct an early safety review of the cameras. He hopes to put together a more in-depth report this summer.
There is also evidence the cameras are changing driving behavior. After peaking in the fall and early winter, the number of citations fell at most intersections in January and February — in some cases dramatically.
“There has been a great deal of public outreach to educate the traveling public – those who reside in this area full time as well as those who are seasonal residents and visitors,” Collier transportation spokeswoman Connie Deane said.
Politics and the law
To Collier Commissioner Fred Coyle, red-light running in Collier County is an “epidemic.”
Commissioner Frank Halas said he’d like to see more cameras because “people’s driving habits in this town are atrocious.”
A year after the first red-light cameras were installed, and nearly two years after they voted to approve them, Coyle and Halas remain the commission’s staunchest supporters of the cameras.
“I stand exactly where I stood then,” Coyle said. “Stop at red lights. That’s the law.”
Coyle said the correspondence he receives about the cameras tends to be split 50-50 for and against, but he suspects residents who like the cameras are less likely to write.
“I believe there is a very, very small number of people that are continuing to complain about this,” Coyle said.
One of those people is Ben Hubschman, who in December started a Facebook page, “Collier County Citizens Against Red Light Camera Tickets,” after receiving a citation in the mail. Hubschman said it was a friend who was driving his car who should have been ticketed, but the cameras don’t cite drivers, they cite vehicle owners.
Hubschman said he will urge the more than 4,700 members of his online group to vote against candidates who support the cameras. Coyle is up for re-election in November; Halas isn’t seeking re-election.
“What it’s come down to now is advocating for new leadership in the county,” Hubschman said.
Despite her reservations about the right-on-red citations, Fiala said she still will support the cameras if statistics show they have made roads safer. Commissioner Jim Coletta, who voted against the cameras in 2008, said he believes the cameras have changed driving behavior for the better, but questions whether the public thinks the benefits “outweigh the intrusion into their private lives.”
“I’d like to have this on the August primary ballot,” Coletta said, referring to a not-legally-binding straw poll.
A year later, Tom Henning remains the only commissioner solidly against the cameras. He is still upset that the county ordinance was passed before the state Legislature addressed the issue.
“I think we got it backward,” he said.
There currently are two bills making their way through the Florida House of Representatives, one of which would legalize red-light cameras on state roads and another that would limit their use. Two pro-camera bills also are working their way through the Florida Senate.
“My sense of it is, the anti-camera bill is dead, and the pro-camera bill is likely to pass the House,” said state Rep. Tom Grady, R-Naples, who has voted against the cameras in the past due to concerns about their effectiveness, constitutionality, Big Brother image, and because he believes they are primarily revenue generators.
“If it gets to the floor, I believe it will be overwhelmingly supported,” Grady said, “but not by me.”
There also are several lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the cameras. In February, a judge ruled the city of Aventura couldn’t use cameras to catch red-light runners.
“They need to have a better system in place where it follows the normal standard where you’re innocent and they have to come forward and prove your guilt,” said Jason Weisser, a West Palm Beach-based attorney, who has class-action lawsuits pending in each of the 22 Florida municipalities — including Collier — that have red-light cameras.
If the cameras are eventually deemed illegal, Coyle said he would be one of the first votes to remove them. But everything he’s heard from the county attorney is that they’re legal.
“Obey the law and stop at red lights, and there won’t be a problem for any of us,” Coyle said. “The county won’t get any more money, people won’t get any more tickets, and we won’t have bicyclists being knocked down and killed.”
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Seven new approaches with red-light cameras going live this coming week:
■ Eastbound on Seagate Drive at U.S. 41
■ Northbound on Airport-Pulling Road at Pine Ridge Road
■ Southbound on Airport-Pulling Road at Pine Ridge Road
■ Westbound at Immokalee Road and U.S. 41
■ Eastbound at Immokalee Road and U.S. 41
■ Westbound on Immokalee Road at Airport-Pulling Road
■ Northbound on Airport-Pulling Road at Radio Road