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Clearwater won't stop issuing red-light tickets

Clearwater officials are confident that cameras are reducing the number of red-light violators at several intersections in the city.

JIM DAMASKE | Times (2011)

Clearwater officials are confident that cameras are reducing the number of red-light violators at several intersections in the city.

CLEARWATER — Despite the wishes of Pinellas County Clerk of Court Ken Burke, Clearwater will continue to ticket red-light runners at two intersections where red-light cameras are watching.

Clearwater's elected officials are satisfied that the cameras appear to be reducing the number of red-light violators at those intersections.

Reacting to the clerk's concerns, Clearwater also is taking steps to allow rental car drivers to avoid a higher fine if their ticket isn't paid promptly.

The Clearwater City Council got an update this week on the city's red-light cameras, which have been ticketing violators since August. The city has cameras at the eastbound and westbound approaches to the intersection of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road. Another camera monitors the intersection of Chestnut Street and Fort Harrison Avenue.

Here's what police officials said:

• In the six months from August to January, Clearwater wrote 5,940 tickets based on the cameras. That includes 2,369 at westbound Gulf-to-Bay and Belcher, 1,818 at eastbound Gulf-to-Bay and Belcher, and 1,753 at Chestnut and Fort Harrison.

• From August to December, Clearwater wrote $570,000 worth of tickets. Nearly $296,000 of that went to the state. Nearly $73,000 went to the cost of operating the devices and reviewing the violations that are caught on camera. That left $201,000 for Clearwater.

• For installing and maintaining Clearwater's cameras, the city pays Redflex Traffic Systems of Arizona $13,000 a month from ticket revenue.

• The city would probably have to pay Redflex $54,000 if it terminated its contract early.

• Redflex says there's been a 60 percent drop in red-light runners at the two intersections since the cameras were installed. Clearwater police did their own analysis and found that the decrease in red-light runners wasn't quite as significant as Redflex claimed. However, police did find that the number of red-light runners has been trending downward at each intersection, from 1,358 violators in August to 880 in December.

The City Council wanted to know about crashes at the two intersections. Some critics of red-light cameras contend that the devices lead to more rear-end collisions as more drivers slam on the brakes to avoid tickets.

Police said the number of crashes at Gulf-to-Bay and Belcher went up 42 percent between 2011 and 2012, when the cameras were working for the last half of the year. Accidents at Chestnut and Fort Harrison rose by 22 percent.

However, police said they couldn't attribute that to the presence of the cameras. One problem is that the overall number of accidents is relatively low and can fluctuate from year to year, said Clearwater police Maj. Daniel Slaughter.

For instance, Chestnut and Fort Harrison had nine crashes in 2011 and 11 crashes in 2012. Gulf-to-Bay and Belcher had 45 and 64 accidents in those two years.

Police reviewed all of the wrecks at those intersections from this past October and December, which saw significant spikes in the number of accidents. They say they didn't find a connection to red-light cameras.

"We looked at each of those individual crashes," Slaughter said. "They really weren't scenarios that were related to red-light crashes. They were people whose foot slipped off the brake, or cars were slowing down to turn into Publix, that kind of thing. We didn't see a correlation that we could attribute to the cameras."

Two weeks ago, Burke wrote a letter to local cities urging them to stop issuing citations from red-light cameras until flaws in the law are fixed. One of his main complaints dealt with drivers of rental cars.

After cities send the $158 tickets to rental car agencies, the companies sign affidavits naming the driver. Cities then send those drivers tickets. By then, the fine has risen to $264 because the ticket wasn't paid within 30 days. So those drivers never get a chance to pay the lower fine, Burke said.

However, police told the City Council that Clearwater has taken steps to allow rental car drivers to avoid the higher fee.

"Our program is a little different," Slaughter said. "What we allow them to do is, if they pay the reduced fine to our vendor, we dismiss the citation. We have a mechanism in place that I don't think other entities are doing."

Although Burke asked for a moratorium on red-light camera tickets, the City Council asked police for another update in the program in six months.

Florida lawmakers are currently considering legislation that they hope will address problems with the state's red-light camera law.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Clearwater won't stop issuing red-light tickets 03/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 7:42pm]
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