ST. PETERSBURG — Roughly three years after cameras first started snapping photos of red-light runners, the cameras will be shuttered permanently today, bringing the controversial city program to an end.
Although the program is under contract to run until midnight, camera-operator American Traffic Solutions will send a signal to deactivate the cameras and flash equipment sometime this afternoon, leaving time to manually turn them off should that fail. The cameras and flash equipment, the bane of thousands of motorists who misjudged or ignored stop lights, will be taken down by the end of October.
A few wheels of the program will continue to turn for the next two months. The city will pay ATS a one-time payment of $25,000 for processing late September citations, and also has agreed to cover the cost of mailing notices of violations after today, estimated to cost no more than $2,000. Drivers will have 60 days to review video footage and to decide if they want appeal the $158 fine. Citations for recent violations will be mailed out by the end of October at the latest.
“If someone doesn’t get one by the first few days of November, they can be rest assured they’re not going to get one,” said Evan Mory, city director of transportation and parking management.
Touted by city officials as a safety measure, 22 cameras were installed at 10 intersections in 2011. Motorists frequently fell afoul of the new equipment with more than 36,000 citations issued in the first 12 months, during which the city’s share totaled $592,000. That lent fuel to critics who claimed the cameras were not about safety, but merely revenue generators for the state, the city and red-light camera companies.
The number of citations fell to about 26,000 in the program’s second year, proof that drivers were learning their lesson and obeying stop lights, city officials said.
But a series of problems, including incorrectly configured yellow-light timings, eroded the credibility of the program and called into question its fairness. That led the city council in March to approve a plan to phase out the cameras.
In September 2013, the city lengthened yellow-light timings at most of its camera-patrolled intersections to comply with a new Florida Department of Transportation directive to give drivers more time to react when the light changes.
The city was forced to lengthen yellow-light times further at three intersections after Matt Florell, a local software programmer and anti-red-light camera activist, paid $600 for an engineering study that showed the city had ignored downhill grades when configuring its stoplights.
In both cases, city officials ignored calls to refund drivers who would not have been ticketed if the lights were set correctly.
Florell, who has analyzed thousands of records from the city and red-light camera companies to find flaws in the system, said the darkening of the cameras is good news for drivers.
“We saw some very dramatic drops in ticketing rates when they raised yellow times at all but one intersection,” Florell said. “I think it’s a very good thing.”
Another hit for the program came from Pinellas County Clerk of the Court Ken Burke, who in 2013 called for a moratorium on tickets because the citations were issued to the owner of the car, who is not always driving at the time of the offense. In response, St. Petersburg agreed owners could escape the fine by submitting an affidavit naming the person who was driving.
Controversy also surrounded the city’s claims that the cameras reduced accidents caused by red-light running. City officials reported a 42 percent drop in such accidents by the end of the program’s second year. Critics are less convinced, saying that other factors contribute to crashes, such as driving under the influence.
Enforcement of red-light running laws now will return solely to the St. Petersburg Police Department’s traffic unit. Red-light operations typically are set up in response to complaints from drivers that others are endangering people, police spokesman Mike Puetz said. Officers also individually monitor intersections.
Mayor Rick Kriseman maintains that cameras, which still are used in Hillsborough County, and the cities of Tampa, Clearwater and Oldsmar, are an effective safety measure and that the city will monitor crash statistics. He has not ruled out bringing back the program, although it would have to be approved by the city council.
“I’m glad the cameras have raised awareness of red-light running and the number of citations has continued to decline,” said Mory, the city transportation director. “Our crash analysis showed they’ve reduced crashes. It’s always a bit of an apprehensive period. We’re hoping that things don’t get worse when the cameras come down.”