New cameras snap hundreds of photos a day at red lights across the Tampa area. Motorists are paying millions in fines. But University of South Florida researchers say the devices do nothing to make the roads safer.
Their latest report in a series that began more than five years ago targets a national study showing a major drop in fatal crashes in cities using red-light cameras.
The study, by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, has been widely cited as proof the cameras save lives.
But the institute's methods were flawed and its findings can't be trusted, say USF researchers Barbara Langland-Orban, Etienne Pracht and John Large in a report published this month in the peer-reviewed Florida Public Health Review.
The research row is part of a nationwide battle between advocates and foes of red-light cameras, with the USF researchers questioning whether cities are using cameras to increase safety or raise revenue.
They say cities should do more to prevent red-light running before setting up cameras to watch drivers.
Pracht, an economist and associate professor in the USF College of Public Health, said the key is how long the yellow light shines before turning red.
National yellow-light standards are "bare minimums," he said. "You can extend that by just one second and virtually eliminate red-light running. If you do that, and you still have a problem, OK, then go to the enforcement with the cameras."
State Rep. Richard Corcoran, a New Port Richey Republican, is co-sponsoring a bill this session to repeal the 2010 law authorizing red-light cameras. Pinellas Republican Rep. Larry Ahern is proposing setting state requirements for yellow lights.
But Tampa and St. Petersburg officials, whose red-light camera programs started four months ago, say the research they read shows the cameras work and they don't see the need for longer yellow lights.
This option only serves to "reduce the capacity of the road," said Joe Kubicki, St. Petersburg's transportation director.
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Red-light cameras sparked researcher Pracht's interest about seven years ago. Other researchers doing trauma studies were looking for a way to fund their work and "somebody mentioned money from the tickets from red-light running," he said.
But to make money, they would need people to run red lights — not part of their public safety mission.
Intrigued by the red-light camera programs, he and the others began looking more closely and saw problems. In a 2008 report, they called attention to studies showing that red-light cameras didn't reduce but increased accidents in some areas as drivers slammed on their brakes at yellow lights turning red.
They also reported that red-light running injury accidents were dropping in Florida without cameras.
Last year, they updated their 2008 work, focusing, they said, on seven studies that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had identified as the most scientifically sound.
None found any safety benefit from the cameras, the researchers reported. Several showed crashes increased.
Then last year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released what it said was the first study of deadly red-light running accidents in cities with and without red-light cameras.
It proved the camera programs saved lives, the institute said.
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The study focused on 14 cities with cameras, looking at fatal accidents before and after the programs began. For comparison, it also looked at 48 cities without camera programs.
The accidents went down for both groups, but the drop was most dramatic, 35 percent, in cities with cameras. They dropped by 14 percent in the cities without cameras.
The study was later published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Safety Research, but this month, USF researchers challenged its findings in their Florida Public Health Review study.
They took issue with many aspects of the study, but focused on the difference between the two comparison groups.
Among the cities that installed cameras, several had high fatality numbers before the camera programs began. By contrast, many cities in the noncamera group only had a few, in some cases zero.
So the cities that began using cameras had a lot of room for improvement, whereas the others didn't.
Pracht and his USF colleagues also criticized the study's neglect of engineering steps the cities may have taken to reduce fatalities, such as increasing yellow-light times.
Although the cities with cameras reduced fatalities at a higher rate than noncamera cities, those noncamera cities had a lower crash rate overall. And that showed how well engineering works to prevent crashes, Pracht said.
Insurance institute spokesman Russ Rader conceded there were differences between the two groups of comparison cities but said "careful controls" were used to account for those differences.
The researchers "looked at a lot of different cities over time and over a large area … trying to minimize" any distorting differences.
"The bottom line is that there is a body of research and compelling evidence that red-light cameras are effective," he said.
He didn't address the criticism concerning engineering changes reducing crashes, saying he couldn't deal with every aspect of the USF report.
He did say, however, that the USF researchers incorrectly accused the institute of promoting red-light cameras as a way to increase ticketing and justify insurance rate hikes.
Red-light camera violations in Florida don't add points to a motorist's record.
Still, they're expensive, $158 a ticket.
"The question is: What's your goal? If it's public safety, there are other things you can do," Pracht said.
Kubicki, of St. Petersburg, isn't persuaded.
"I've talked to" the USF researchers, he said. "Quite frankly, I don't go along with their reports. … In some cases, what they say is true. But their data is typically two to three years old."
He didn't have any comment on the most recent report.
St. Petersburg set up 22 cameras at 10 intersections last year and began imposing fines on violators in November. More than 7,500 people received tickets in the first two months, netting $342,158. Roughly half went to the city, most of the rest to state.
The company that runs the system, American Traffic Solutions of Phoenix, receives a set fee.
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Before turning on the cameras, the city checked all the traffic lights to make sure the yellow timing met national standards. The city didn't, however, experiment with increasing the yellow time to find out if that would stop the red-light offenders.
"There was a lot of discussion about the yellow-time interval," Kubicki said. "We were hearing from other states that it was not working, that people got used to the longer time."
Tampa didn't try any yellow-light changes before starting its program last year, either.
The engineers "assured us they met the standards, the national standards," said Tampa police Assistant Chief John Bennett.
What the city did do was focus on the most dangerous intersections, he said. The camera company, ATS, wanted to install them where the traffic volume was highest.
For years, injury accidents at intersections had been dropping in Tampa as the police studied them to figure out why they happened and how to stop them, Bennett said.
He expects the cameras will bring them down even more.
He has seen the findings that cameras increase mainly rear-end crashes, but he says they can prevent angle and side-on crashes, the "worst of the worst," he said.
"It would be hard to go to sleep at night if I knew there was something else out there … that I didn't use."
It's too soon to know whether the Tampa cameras have made a difference, he said.
The city has issued more than 15,600 red-light camera tickets since the city's program started at 16 intersections in November.
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When Hillsborough County started a red-light camera program in 2009, crashes were on the way down at the six intersections selected for surveillance. Since then, the drop has slowed, partly because crashes went up at some of the six.
Still, Hillsborough sheriff's Cpl. Troy Morgan supports the effort, saying the cameras helped deputies see things at problem intersections, such as the need to put a reflective background around a red light at State Road 60.
Hillsborough issued 28,123 red-light tickets last year, about 2,400 less than the year before.
"People think we want this work load. We don't," Morgan said. "I'll do anything I can to increase safety and to make violations go down, or possibly go away."
The number of red-light cameras is increasing across Florida, but they're going down elsewhere.
The Houston City Council outlawed red-light cameras last year after the public voted them down.
Several cities in Georgia removed their systems when violations plummeted after the state required an increase in yellow-light intervals in 2009.
Kansas City, Mo., officials are questioning their red-light cameras after a study last month showed crashes had increased at intersections with cameras.
Florida Rep. Corcoran proposed a statewide red-light camera ban last year that narrowly passed in the House then failed in the Senate.
He knows he faces opposition from ATS, the company that supplies most of the red-light camera systems in Florida, including Tampa and St. Petersburg. The company has spent more than $880,000 on state legislative lobbying and campaign contributions since 2008, including giving $500 to Corcoran in 2010.
It also helped create an advocacy group, National Coalition for Safer Roads.
Its website features the latest study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.