Letters to the City Council

Sent October 3, 2011:

Dear Members of the City Council,
I have seen the Mayor's TV ad about red light cameras and how they are about safety and saving lives, I saw the flier that the city put in with my water bill, with some questionable statements on it(see response flier), and I've made note of the intersections that the Mayor and his staff decided to put the red light cameras at in our city, and then I looked those intersections up in the $99,000 consultant intersection safety report and I was quite puzzled. It reminded me of that sesame street song, "which one of these is not like the others...", the intersection of 54th Ave. N. and 4th St. N. stuck out like a sore thumb. It is ranked 83rd most dangerous intersection in the city, 30th in red light running crash frequency and 136th in red light running crash severity. The only explanation I could think of was, maybe there was a fatal crash here that explains why it got red light cameras, so I got the list of the 11 fatal crashes that happened in the city in the last 3 years, nope, in fact there were no fatal signalized intersection crashes north of 30th Ave N in the city in the last 3 years.

So I decided to call and email with various members of the city staff and police department. No one on the staff can tell me why this intersection was chosen over the 72 more dangerous intersections in the city that are not getting cameras. The Mayor has talked so much about safety and saving lives, yet one of the more dangerous intersections that was not chosen for red light cameras, MLK and 22nd Ave. N., has had repeat fatal crashes in just the last three years with a total of 5 people dead. In fact, NONE of the signalized intersections where people have actually died at in the last 3 years were chosen to receive red light cameras, NONE. The only answer I got back was that the intersection of 54th and 4th was NOT chosen because it was a dangerous intersection, it was chosen for other factors. I am still waiting on an answer for why those "other factors" were more important at this intersection than the 72 more dangerous intersections in the city that did not get the cameras.

I would also like to give you an update on what American Traffic Solutions(ATS), the company that you have decided to outsource this law enforcement function to, has been up to for the last few months since the city council voted to sign a contract with them in April.

  • Los Angeles, California canceled their contract with ATS, ending their 10-year red light camera program which more than one city council member classified as "ineffective"

  • Here in Florida, the city of Hialeah canceled their contract with ATS, ending their red light camera program

  • ATS has threatened to sue the city of Houston, Texas for $25 million if they tried to get out of their contract after citizens voted to remove red light cameras in that city. More than $2 million of that amount is from ATS' own campaigning efforts leading up to that referendum.

  • ATS tried to get a restraining order against Houston's Mayor Parker to prevent her from turning off their red light cameras, it was dismissed by the judge

  • ATS sued the city of Bellingham, Washington to try to stop a citizen petition on red light cameras from appearing on the ballot. The Superior Court judge fined ATS $10,000 for a SLAPP violation(that's "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation") and also ordered ATS to pay the defendant's court costs.

  • A new multi-million-dollar lawsuit against ATS was filed in several Missouri cities where red light cameras were recently ruled as illegal

  • ATS fired their VP of sales, Bill Kroske, after evidence came out that he was caught posting pro-camera messages online using a fake name as well as attempting to collude with a Mayor in Washington state to stop a red light camera referendum there.

  • ATS issued almost 1,000 invalid citations in the city of Gallatin, Tennessee

  • In New Port Richey, ATS issued a red light camera ticket to a man going through a green light, even after a supposed multi-person review

  • In Opa-Locka, Florida, ATS issued several red light camera citations to members of a police-escorted funeral procession. ATS even denied dismissal upon appeal.

  • ATS offered the city of Davie, Florida deferred payment up to 6 months of their camera rental fees to convince them to start up their program after the City Council was dragging their feet. They also issued a thinly veiled threat of a $1 million lawsuit if the city did not activate the cameras.

  • A Sun Sentinel report came out about ATS' aggressive and misleading lobbying tactics here in Florida where it has 17 registered lobbyists and has spent $1.5 million on lobbying just at the state government level.

  • In part because of the above issues, the city of Clearwater decided to go with red light camera vendor Redflex instead of ATS for their camera systems.

The above events were all just from the last few months.

And on the subject of the contract with ATS, I have a copy of the final signed contract and I really would like to applaud the city's legal staff for writing in the following escape clause: (from point number 4),

"Termination due to Legislative Action: If legislation is passed that repeals HB325/Chapter 2010-80, the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Program, or if any laws are enacted that prohibits the operation of the Intersection Public Safety Program (as known as the Traffic Infraction Detector program), or IF ANY OTHER LEGAL AUTHORITY PROHIBITS THE OPERATION OF THE INTERSECTION PUBLIC SAFETY PROGRAM (as known as the Traffic Infraction Detector program), this Agreement shall automatically terminate with no notice required to be given by either party."

According to the portion I put in ALL CAPS, a simple reversal of the City Council's vote on the ordinance authorizing red light cameras in the city would mean that the program could be ended at any time with no financial penalty. In light of this, I would like to encourage you to vote to repeal the ordinance authorizing the use of red light cameras before they have a chance to cause damage to our city.

Sent March 12, 2011:

Dear Members of the City Council,

I am writing this letter to try to provide you with more information on the negative side effects we could see by installing red light cameras in our city. In the last few months, several cities in Florida have installed red light cameras(and several have had them removed), and we are starting to see more of the negative effects of these devices. 

In Haines City just two weeks ago, the city commission meeting was crowded to standing-room-only with citizens angry at receiving right-turn-on-red tickets from that city's new red light cameras(The majority of tickets issued in the first month were for right turn on red violations). As a result of the tremendous citizen outcry, the commission is looking at stopping ticketing for right turn on red violations, and giving amnesty for those who have already been ticketed for right turn on red violations.

Last month, an Orlando man received a red light camera ticket for running a red light, even though the provided video clearly showed his car stopped at the light while another car went through the intersection. The man tried to talk to the city and get them to drop the ticket, but he was told that the cameras don't make mistakes. It wasn't until a TV news reporter got involved and showed the video to a city official that the city admitted that their camera system isn't perfect that they canceled the man's ticket. The reporter also stated that their research has shown several other similar cases have occured in Orlando.

Also last month, the University of South Florida College of Public Health released a report on the effects of installing red light camera systems. The report includes more information that they have obtained from the Federal Highway Administration(FHWA) that shows fatalities actually increased after red light cameras were installed across the 7 communities that were included in their 2005 study, also leading to a net increase in crash costs after red light cameras are installed(This is the study that is consistently referenced by St Petersburg city staff as support for installing red light cameras). One of the conclusions reached in the USF report is, "The studies that integrated relevant independent variables in the analysis found red light cameras were associated with increases in crashes and injuries".

In Broward county, the municipalites issuing red light camera tickets have been ordered to provide legal counsel at appeals hearings for these tickets, resulting in additional expenses and actually causing some of the programs to cost more than they are bringing in in ticketing revenue. Also, the majority of these tickets being appealed are being thrown out. 

The clerk of the Palm Beach County court said that red light camera tickets have put a burden on their court system since they receive no compensation for them, stating "It's a huge loss, It's a completely underfunded mandate."

In Florida, just in the last year, the cities of Brooksville, Ocala, Royal Palm Beach, Haverhill, Lake Worth, Vero Beach, Pompano Beach and Satellite Beach have all decided to stop their running or planned red light camera programs.

As for here in St Petersburg, we have yet to see an estimated budget for our proposed program or even an estimate of ticketing rates over time, let alone any draft vendor contracts. The only information provided on ticketing rates I was able to obtain from the Transportation department was a spreadsheet with ticketing rates from 10 municipalities in Florida, all from before the Wandall Act restrictions on red light camera ticketing went into effect(Several of those municipalities have seen their ticketing rates fall severely since then). The stated estimate of 30 citations per intersection per day(with 2 cameras per intersection), is three to nineteen times higher than the current rate of ticketing at most of the area red light camera installations: (Kenneth City = 7.67, Hillsborough County = 8.48, Bradenton = 10.6, Lakeland = 9.02, Collier County = 1.55). No explanation has ever been made for why the citation rate is expected to be so much higher here in St Petersburg than everywhere else in the area.

For a politician's perspective on red light cameras at the city level, here are some quotes from Mr. Rhodes Rigsby, Mayor of Loma Linda, California(they had red light cameras in place for almost five years. While they still had the cameras in place, they added one additional second of yellow time and saw a 92% reduction in red light violations): "The statistics from January are very telling... We're talking about huge success of lengthening the yellow lights... We could have had that safety with lengthening the yellow four years ago instead of installing red light cameras." In December 2010 the city of Loma Linda, California voted to remove the red light cameras from their city. Mayor Rigsby also offers his advice to other cities considering installing red light cameras, saying "The winners are the companies that run the red light cameras... My advice to politicians is don't sign a long term contract with these companies because you will end up with a negative situation that the public hates and you're stuck with it for five years like we were".

In closing, I would like to ask you to again look at all of the evidence that is out there about red light cameras, the city staff is presenting you with a very one-sided and unrealistic view of these devices, and I think that you should have all of the available information before you approve any contract with a red light camera vendor. 

Sent October 7, 2010:

Dear City Councilmembers, St. Petersburg - 2010-10-07

I wanted to bring to your attention that the St Petersburg Public Services & Infrastructure Committee report from September 30 contains some very misleading and one-sided statements about Red-Light Cameras, and I wanted to let you know the whole picture about red-light cameras now that you have approved their use in our city.

The statement of a 50% reduction in right-angle crashes is mentioned in the FHWA(Federal Highway Administration) "Safety Evaluation of Red-Light Cameras" report, but only in a reference to a 1993 Australian study that also mentions upto a 60% increase in rear-end collisions, which is not mentioned in the Committee report. As for the statement of a 75% reduction over 3 years, there is nothing in the FHWA report to support this. Also, the statement that the FHWA is "encouraging implementation nationwide", does not appear anywhere in the report in text or in spirit. Instead, the following statements are mentioned several times in the conclusions of the FHWA report: "There was indeed a modest aggregate crash cost benefit of RLC systems... The indications of a spillover effect point to a need for a more definitive study...", a very different message than was being presented to the committee.

One other point that the FHWA website mentions in it's Q&A section is "Question: Do public agencies use photo enforcement to generate revenue? Answer: Red-light cameras should only be used to enhance traffic safety. The goal of red-light camera programs should strictly be to reduce crashes and the resulting injuries and deaths", which is contradicts by the committee statements of the estimated millions of dollars beyond the costs of the program that the city can collect from red-light-camera tickets to use for other purposes, as well as the adding the estimated profit from this program into the city budget.

Another point from the FHWA website: “Question: If cities are financially dependent on the revenue these devices bring in; doesn't that actually discourage implementing engineering solutions that would make intersections safer? Answer: ...Red-light running is a complex issue that needs to be addressed through a comprehensive approach that includes engineering, enforcement and education solutions. In many areas, red-light camera programs have not produced profits to cities. One example is the finding of the California State Auditor that 'local governments themselves make little or no profit from their programs.'." This is confirmed here in Florida by a Collier County report that shows their RLC ticket rate has fallen 80% in the last year.

Another claim made to the committee that "rear-end collisions are far less dangerous and damaging than angle crashes" is directly contradicted by the data on the FHWA website that shows that after red-light-cameras are implemented, rear-end collision injuries increase by 24%, and angle collision injuries decrease by only 16%.

The whole picture is even worse for red light camera systems than what was presented to the Committee when you look past the FHWA report, with the majority of studies published in the last several years showing no improvement in overall safety at all.

One very recent report is an audit released just last week by the Controller of the City of Los Angeles, California of their red-light-camera program which has been running for 10 years. The audit shows that not only has there been no improvement in safety at the red-light-camera intersections, but the city actually lost money on the program. The Los Angeles RLC program at 32 intersections is very similar to the one proposed in St Petersburg with 20 intersections, along with the city having to share the revenue with the state in a similar amount as our city will have to with our state. If they can't make it work there after 10 years, what makes us think we can make it work here.

Two more studies released in the last couple months in Chicago and Winnepeg, show an increase in accidents at red light camera intersections(of 5% and 18% respectively) whereas the non-red-light-camera-intersections in those cities showed a decrease in accidents over the same time period.

Another report from the city of Charlotte, NC came out last month showing that city's accident rate is lower last year than it has been in 10 years, the interesting part is that Charlotte had red-light-cameras until 2006 when they removed them, and the accident rate has plummeted since then. One of the reasons Charlotte removed their red light cameras back then was because of the North Carolina study by the Urban Transit Institute of over 4 years of data that shows: "The results do not support the view that red light cameras reduce crashes. Instead, we find that RLCs are associated with higher levels of many types and severity categories of crashes".

Add to this the more comprehensive seven-year study by the Virginia Department of Transportation that concludes that red-light cameras lead to an overall increase in accidents.

It should also be mentioned that several municipalities in Florida have recently rejected red-light-cameras, including in Brooksville this summer where their 2-year-old red-light camera program was scrapped because of citizen backlash and a negative impact on tourism.
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Committee Report 2010-09-30  1095k v. 3 Oct 7, 2010, 4:47 PM St Pete Driver