TALLAHASSEE — Mess with the bull, the saying goes, and you get the horns.
When it comes to doing away with red light cameras in Florida, the “bull” is American Traffic Solutions, the largest red light camera provider in the state.
In this case, the “horns” are a full-frontal public relations attack against a bill (SB 144) filed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, to pull the plug on the cameras statewide.
Brandes, who chairs the Senate’s Transportation committee, has called red light cameras a “backdoor tax increase” and said he’ll go “all-in for full repeal” this legislative session.
A similar effort failed last year, though state law was changed to allow drivers to contest red-light camera tickets.
The systems currently are in use in Hillsborough and Pinellas and were in 24 other counties in 2012-13, according to the report. Violators must pay a $158 fine.
ATS provides all the Pinellas cameras except in Clearwater, where they’re from red light camera vendor RedFlex. Both companies are based in the Phoenix area.
A former national salesman for RedFlex has accused the company of bribing officials in Florida and 12 other states to win contracts; the firm has denied the allegations.
Collier County no longer operates red light cameras, having ended its contract with ATS last year.
But an ATS spokeswoman slammed a legislative research report wielded by Brandes as ammunition against the cameras.
That report, by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, showed rear-end, ‘T-bone’ and other crashes going up 12 percent after cameras went up.
“Our thought is that these studies are more properly conducted by traffic safety experts, not a budget or legislative analyst funded by the legislature itself,” ATS spokeswoman Beth Leytham said in an email. She even suggested the findings were aimed at “political cover for a powerful legislator’s personal ideology.”
For the 2014 election cycle, American Traffic Solutions so far has contributed $268,500 to a range of political action committees and Democratic and Republican state lawmakers, including $130,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and $55,000 to the Florida Democratic Party, according to online campaign finance records.
Brandes is not among those receiving ATS’ largesse.
The Legislature approved the use of traffic cameras statewide in 2010 to crack down on red light runners and decrease collisions as part of the Mark WandallTraffic Safety Act.
Wandall, 30, was killed by a motorist speeding through a red light in Manatee County in 2003, leaving behind his then-pregnant wife.
Melissa Wandall, in a recent op-ed column in The Tampa Tribune, pointed to other statistics in the research report.
They showed deaths going down by nearly half in a dozen counties with the cameras, “resulting in an estimated 18 lives saved.”
Although the report “glossed over these statistics and instead focused on more sensationalized anti-camera views, saving 18 lives means the world to the 18 families who would have otherwise lost a loved one forever,” she wrote.
Leytham also points out that the report “grossly exaggerates” the number of collisions because of an apples-and-oranges comparison between different kinds of crash reports.
Researchers “compared two different forms,” Leytham said. “This created an erroneous finding that rear end collisions had increased dramatically.”
And Leytham referred to a technical critique of the report by an Orlando city traffic engineer, noting that it didn’t use a control group of intersections without red light cameras for comparison, among other complaints.
Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg city council is planning to vote on its contentious red-light camera program after staff admitted yellow light times were too short at some intersections.
A 2004 study by the Transportation Research Board found that increasing yellow light time to 1.5 seconds cuts red light violations by half.
Mayor Rick Kriseman said the city will not offer refunds, however. He said most of the revenue from fines in St. Petersburg has been remitted to the state.
Brandes said the numbers speak for themselves and ATS is “just trying to muddy the waters.”
The company, for example, hasn’t responded to him about his concern that residents are being fleeced, he said.
The state’s report found many localities using the fine money to pad their general budgets instead of spending it on safety improvements.
Revenue from red light violations was at nearly $119 million for 2012-13, the report said. Of that, $52 million went to the state treasury, nearly $10 million was deposited into state trust funds and cities and counties kept $56 million.
Over the last three years, local governments sent almost half of the money they kept – 49 percent – to camera vendors as payments, according to the report.
ATS and other companies are “backed into a corner,” Brandes said. “They’re selling their product on safety when it’s really about revenue.”
Charles Territo, ATS’ senior vice president, said his company wouldn’t be making money if drivers obeyed the law.
“There’s a device in every vehicle that can prevent a red light camera ticket,” he said. “It’s called a brake pedal.”
St. Petersburg Tribune staff writer Christopher O’Donnell and Naples Daily News reporter Kate Albers contributed to this report.
How to sound off
Senate Bill 144/House Bill 4009 woukld largely prohibit installation of red light cameras on Florida roadways by undoing earlier laws passed to allow for them.
To find and contact your own senator or representative, visit www.leg.state.fl.us. You’ll also find helpful tips at the Information Center there.