Paralysis program, trauma centers are losers as Collier stops red light cameras

American Traffic Solutions field technician Israel Rodriguez installs new red-light cameras aimed at the intersection of Airport-Pulling and Pine Ridge Roads on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010, in Naples. David Albers/Staff

Photo by DAVID ALBERS // Buy this photo

American Traffic Solutions field technician Israel Rodriguez installs new red-light cameras aimed at the intersection of Airport-Pulling and Pine Ridge Roads on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010, in Naples. David Albers/Staff

■ Red-light running accounts for 883 fatalities and 165,000 injuries nationally each year.

■ Florida’s 81 red-light running fatalities in 2011 cost the state $486 million in workplace, medical, property damage, emergency services and other costs.

■ Red light crashes at Philadelphia intersections dropped 36 percent when yellow-light timing was lengthened, allowing for increased decision-making time for motorists. When the city added cameras to those intersections, red-light violations decreased 96 percent.

■ In 2009, before Collier’s cameras were installed, a survey of 80 county residents and visitors showed 57.5 percent considered red-light running a problem here, ranking it more than a 7 on a scale of 1-10, while 31 percent rated it 5-7; 27.5 percent favored installation of cameras and 20 percent opposed it; 89 percent claimed they’d never been ticketed for running a red light and 74 percent admitted running a red light.

■ Collier cameras snapped about 760 red light runners monthly from April 2009 to December 2011. Last year, there were 10,856 red light violations issued, up from 9,926 a year earlier. That’s a drop from 2010, when there were 20,392, the height of issuing rolling right-on-red tickets, which weren’t issued after May 2010.

Sources: National transportation agencies; National Coalition for Safer Roads; 2009 undercover survey of 80 Collier residents by sheriff’s Lt. Harold Minsch; county records.

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— Within two years after red-light camera tickets in 73 Florida communities began amassing fines, nearly $15 million went to trauma centers statewide and to a Miami-based program to try to help those who are paralyzed.

Out of each $158 red-light running ticket, $10 was divided among 22 trauma centers and $3 from each ticket went to the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which has received $3.5 million for research into cures for brain and spinal injuries.

Paralyzed patients who benefit are baffled by Collier County commissioners' 3-2 vote last month to remove the red-light cameras as of Feb. 28.

"Everybody who goes to the Miami Project is getting some benefit," said Brenda Cruz of Miami, a 39-year-old quadriplegic who is taking part in an investigative study. "One day, I hope they can find a cure. Meanwhile, the Miami Project is very useful for us. Anything that can support the Miami Project is like giving to us."

The project was started by former Miami Dolphin Nick Buoniconti, an All-Pro and Hall of Fame linebacker whose son, Marc, was paralyzed 27 years ago while tackling someone during a college football game.

Since the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act went into effect in July 2010, mandating that a portion of the red light fines go to the Miami Project and Florida's trauma centers, the Buonicontis' project received about $600,000 quarterly.

Marc Buoniconti, the project's president and chief fundraiser, mocked a Collier commissioner's contention that the cameras and tickets hurt tourism.

"What's worse, a couple of tourists who complain about getting ticketed for running a red light — or dead tourists?" he asked. "I've never seen a program with a more direct benefit: (Cameras) save lives.

"I'd rather have less money and fewer people in wheelchairs," he said. "If you take down red light cameras, you're going to have more people in wheelchairs. Those who aren't lucky end up in a coffin."

In Fort Myers, Lee Memorial Hospital's trauma center, which has lost $6 million yearly for three years while serving all of Southwest Florida, has received at least $607,395 from the fines.

"With the Lee Memorial Trauma Center operating at a loss each year, any source of funding is important," hospital spokeswoman Mary Briggs said.

"While the income generated from the Collier County red light cameras hasn't been significant, it has contributed and every little bit helps," she said. "We encourage our elected leaders to continue to recognize that broad-based funding for trauma is essential for our community."

But on Feb. 28, the 19 cameras at a dozen intersections in Collier will be removed because commissioners are terminating the county's contract with Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions.

Collier began its program in April 2009 and commissioners approved a 10-year contract last March, but Collier had the option of canceling after one year. Collier pays ATS $28,500 monthly to run the program, then splits the ticket money with the state; Collier keeps $75 from each $158 citation. There were 10,856 violations issued last year.

ATS spokesman Charles Territo said Collier's program is 100 percent paid for by red-light runners, with money left over after the county pays ATS $342,000 yearly to administer the program, including maintaining equipment, mailing out notices, collecting fines and sending money to the county.

"It's hard to understand why the commissioners are in such a hurry to kill a program that pays for itself, generates additional revenue, and enhances public safety," Territo said. "It was surprising to us because not only had the county just negotiated a long-term contract last spring, but by all accounts the county's red-light safety camera program was doing what it was designed to do.

"Red-light-running violations continued to decrease as did collisions related to red light running," he added. "More than 94 percent of vehicles that have received a violation have not received a second."

In the three years since cameras were installed, Collier sheriff's statistics show, there were about 25 percent fewer crashes caused by red-light runners than in the prior three years.

Sheriff Kevin Rambosk, who supports the cameras, has said they make intersections safer and educate drivers. He'd urged commissioners not to remove them, saying he'd have to add four or five traffic officers at a cost of $100,000 each, including equipment and vehicles.

But Commissioner Georgia Hiller pushed to end the program, saying there's "no demonstrated evidence" cameras reduce crashes. She branded the system unfair because it doesn't give drivers "due process" to contest tickets to prove who was driving.

Commissioner Fred Coyle and Commissioner Georgia Hiller during a meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009, in Naples. David Albers/ Staff

Photo by DAVID ALBERS // Buy this photo

Commissioner Fred Coyle and Commissioner Georgia Hiller during a meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009, in Naples. David Albers/ Staff

"You don't create a system to subsidize some other project if the system is fundamentally unfair," said Hiller, referring to car owners getting violations after cameras snap their license plates. "I fully support anything that helps scientific research, but I can't justify keeping the red light cameras when I think it's a fundamentally flawed program."

ATS' Territo said the majority of car owners don't dispute they were driving; only 3 percent blame others.

Commissioners Fred Coyle and Donna Fiala voted against removal. Coyle scoffed at the idea that cameras and tickets hurt tourism.

"It's one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard," Coyle said recently. "There was a lot of false information about the red-light cameras and the revenues, largely from a group of radicals who don't like being caught doing something wrong."

He doubted the vote would be reversed, noting: "It would take three commissioners coming to their senses. … They don't make decisions based on all the facts."

A recent Tampa Bay Times poll showed 72 percent of state residents support the cameras, agreeing they make roads safer, and 67 percent want to keep them.

Some studies show cameras reduce crashes and educate drivers, making them more cautious, but others suggest they may cause rear-end crashes when drivers hit their brakes.

This month, a state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles survey of 73 Florida communities with red-light safety cameras showed that from July 1, 2011, through June 30, 2012, there was a 56 percent decrease in the total number of crashes, a 44 percent drop in angle-collisions and a 41 percent reduction in rear-end crashes. The survey showed police also noticed driver behavior improved at intersections with no cameras.

A study published this month in Accident Analysis & Prevention journal showed what occurred when red-light cameras were removed after the Virginia Legislature in 2005 allowed the law to expire; it has since been reinstated. A team of psychologists from Old Dominion University found red-light runners nearly tripled immediately after the law expired and more than quadrupled one year later.

Melissa Wandall of Bradenton, who spent 5½ years educating the public about red-light cameras, pushed for the law named after her husband, who was killed by an already convicted red-light runner. She called Collier commissioners' vote "unfortunate."

"The cameras work," she said, noting most drivers never get a second ticket. "I always say, 'The next time, it won't be a ticket, it will be a death.' "

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Comments » 1

naplesguy34120 writes:

Finally my anxiety levels can go back to normal an I am approaching a yellow light and cant stop in time. I have been driving 25 years and have never received a red light ticket.I agree they may save lives but anytime profit corporations make money of the citizens we need to be sure there is nothing off base going on and in this case you don't know who is behind that wheel and penalizing the registered owner of the car without proof he was responsible for the infraction is wrong. This is why we pay police.Once tourism gets a bad tast about Naples its over,tourist dollars and snowbirds are crucial to this Counties survival.Its a snowbird refuge and there money trickles down to everyone here.I don't care if your an M.D at NCH or a server at Cheesecake factory. These northeners don't like it and they hold the weight of a dictator, the rest of us are just dummies.

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