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Wednesday, Dec 19, 2018
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No refunds for drivers ticketed at faulty St. Pete stoplight

ST. PETERSBURG — City officials say they will not refund drivers ticketed at a busy red-light camera intersection despite admitting the stoplight’s yellow-light time was too short.

The stop-light setting on the eastbound approach of First Avenue South and 34th Street ignored that the road slopes slightly downhill, meaning drivers should have had more time to stop or to get through the intersection.

Since 2011, at least 778 drivers have received $158 fines after misjudging the yellow light up to just two-tenths of a second, the margin by which the signal was in error. City officials last week lengthened the yellow-light interval, but told a city council subcommittee Thursday that existing fines will stand.

“There’s an adequate margin of error in the red-light camera program,” said Joe Kubicki, city director of transportation. “There’s plenty of time to stop at that intersection.”

The error was brought to light by Matt Florell, a local software programmer and anti-red-light camera activist who paid $600 for an engineering study on the intersection. Florell has analyzed thousands of records from the city and red-light camera companies to find flaws in the system. He publishes his findings on a website and to city council members.

“The city should hold itself to the same level of perfection that it holds drivers to,” he said. “It should refund the citations issued at that intersection.”

Kubicki said the city does not have the budget to survey the 21 other approaches to intersections monitored by cameras to see if they are configured correctly.

The error is yet more ammunition for critics who say the camera program is flawed and designed to generate revenue for cities and camera companies.

It follows several other high-profile controversies over the cameras. The city late last year lengthened most yellow-light intervals to comply with a Florida Department of Transportation directive to give drivers more reaction time. Officials admitted last week the yellow-light durations listed on some citations may be inaccurate, although they insist those tickets are valid.

St. Petersburg also introduced a forgiveness policy for vehicle owners, including car rental companies that were ticketed when someone else was behind the wheel at the time of the infraction.

Still, city officials say the cameras are reducing accidents caused by red-light violations and cite a 28 percent drop in the number of citations as proof that the cameras are changing driver behavior.

In the 12 months before Oct. 31, just fewer than 26,000 drivers were cited, down from 36,000 during the first full year the cameras were in operation, according to a city report.

That resulted in $2.7 million in fines. Slightly more than half of the money goes to the state. The remainder is shared by the city and American Traffic Solutions, the camera company that administers the program.

The number of accidents at the 10 intersections policed by cameras has fallen by more than 6 percent, compared to an average figure taken over the three years before cameras were introduced, the report states. Crashes attributed to running a red-light have fallen by 42 percent.

Critics say those numbers ignore other factors, such as driving under the influence.

More than 100 other cities and counties, including Tampa, Clearwater and Hillsborough County, use cameras to police intersections.

While Tampa has expanded its program, transportation staff have constantly been on the defensive in St. Petersburg.

“We are on a monthly basis talking about our program; they are not doing that in other communities,” Kubicki said. The election of two new council members who said they opposed the program has fueled speculation it may be scrapped. The council is scheduled to discuss the program at a workshop later this month.

“The concern I have is how do we restore public trust in this program?” said Amy Foster, one of the two new council members. “People were ticketed that maybe shouldn’t have been ticketed.”

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