Fewer drivers are being caught by cameras running red lights in St. Petersburg, sparking a new debate about whether the system is changing driving habits.
Roughly 29,000 drivers in St. Petersburg were ticketed based on camera data over a 12-month period that ended June 30 — roughly 7,000, or 25 percent fewer than in the first full year of the program, according to a report recently sent to the state. City officials are also reporting that the number of accidents at intersections monitored by the cameras has fallen by more than 4 percent.
The drop in citations will mean less revenue for the city, but St. Petersburg officials are hailing the numbers as proof that drivers are now more likely to brake rather than accelerate when stop lights turn yellow. That is especially true for drivers caught by the cameras. Only 6 percent of citations were for repeat offenders.
“People learn quickly and change their behavior quickly,” said Mike Fredericks, the city’s transportation manager.
But critics of cameras remain skeptical that the city’s 22 cameras at 10 intersections could be having such a big effect. Changes to the program, including a decision by the city not to ticket drivers who missed a yellow light by just one tenth of a second would also result in a drop in citations, said Matt Florell, a software company owner who publishes what he sees as flaws in the city’s system on his website.
Between February and June, the city also stopped issuing tickets to rental car drivers and in other cases where the cars’ owners were not behind the wheel at the time of the offense.
“I’m sure driver behavior has been changed to some extent, but to infer that is the only reason for the drop in citations is a false assumption,” Florell said. “You have to take into account all these other program changes.”
There is also little agreement on crash statistics the city reported to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
At camera-monitored intersections, side-impact crashes have dropped by almost 14 percent, and rear-end crashes are down 12 percent, the report states.
“We’re seeing crashes go in the right direction,” Fredericks said. “That’s less resources on the city having to send emergency responders.”
But those numbers do not omit accidents where other factors, such as driver impairment, were a factor.
Florida lawmakers gave cities and communities leeway to introduce cameras in 2010. Dozens of communities have introduced the technology, including Hillsborough County, Tampa, Clearwater and Oldsmar.
Roughly half of the $158 fine for running a red light goes to the state, with local governments and the companies that operate the red-light cameras sharing the remainder.
St. Petersburg’s share of fines from its first full year of operation was $1.7 million.
With plans to add 10 additional cameras, city officials estimated that would rise to $3.1 million in the 2013 fiscal year. But with some City Council leaders questioning the accuracy and fairness of cameras, Mayor Bill Foster scrapped the expansion. The city’s revenue from cameras from the 2013 fiscal year ended up at $1.3 million.
The number of citations could fall further in 2014, too. Last month, the city adjusted yellow-light timings at most of the intersections to comply with a new Florida Department of Transportation directive that gives drivers more time to react to stoplights turning yellow.
The controversial program survived numerous council votes to scrap it over the past year, usually by a 5-3 margin.
Support on council could change after newly elected Amy Foster and Darden Rice are sworn in Jan. 2. Both were critical of red-light cameras during their election campaigns, although Rice has said she wants to see more data before deciding on a course of action.
Meanwhile, Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman favors keeping the system, though he has said he would consider scrapping tickets for illegal right turns on red.
The issue could come to a head soon after a Jan. 12 City Council committee meeting to review camera data. City Council Chairman Karl Nurse has repeatedly voted in favor of keeping cameras but said he will change his vote if drivers continue to be fined because they misjudge yellow lights by fractions of a second.
“I know that we elected council members opposed to red-light cameras,” Nurse said. “Unless we can see documented evidence that the adjustment of yellow timings results in fewer people being cited, I don’t think there’s five votes to continue it.”