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St. Petersburg council member seeks study on timing of yellow lights

ST. PETERSBURG — As stoplights change from green to yellow, drivers can either hit the brakes or risk a red-light camera ticket at many intersections.

Camera critics have urged city leaders to lengthen the time that the lights stay yellow and have found an understanding ear in council member Charlie Gerdes.

Gerdes will ask the City Council today to approve a request for city engineers to study the impact of increasing yellow-light times. The action could appease camera critics, Gerdes said.

"It's a way to add credibility to show this is a safety program, not a revenue generator," he said. "I do think it could make a difference."

A majority of the City Council would have to support the request in order for staffers to produce a report and present it to the city's Public Services & Infrastructure Committee.

Debate about red-light cameras has ignited ire in recent months between the council and Mayor Bill Foster. Citizens also have attended public meetings to support or criticize the cameras.

City records showed that rear-end wrecks at intersections with red-light cameras spiked 44 percent between November 2011 and last October. Also, total crashes at those intersections jumped 10 percent in the program's first year.

St. Petersburg's yellow light times range from four to five seconds. The times are based on guidelines from Institute of Traffic Engineers and take into account such factors as traffic volume, speed and an intersection's size.

Joe Kubicki, the city's director of transportation and parking management, said he doesn't expect Gerdes' proposal to result in any changes.

The Department of Transportation will not allow the city to alter yellow times on any state roads, he said, adding: "They've suggested we don't deviate from national standards."

Matt Florell, a resident and camera critic who frequently produces reports crunching crash and violation data at red-light intersections, raised the issue of yellow times during a meeting in February.

The talk died after Kubicki asked the council to be patient while traffic engineers study the problem. Kubicki said traffic engineers found random problems with some controllers at intersections with cameras. The new devices, he said, are being monitored to make sure times aren't being short-cycled.

In a recent report Florell sent to the council, the city's data show that cameras with longer yellow times issue fewer tickets, he said.

A camera at Tyrone Boulevard at 66th Street N has a yellow time of 4.3 seconds and issued 75 percent more tickets than a nearby camera at 66th Street and 38th Avenue N. That camera has a yellow time of five seconds, the report said.

"It will be a very interesting discussion," Florell said about the meeting.

Paul Henry, who investigated traffic crashes for the Florida Highway Patrol for almost 20 years, said longer yellow times will increase safety but lower camera profits.

"It's a revenue-generating system, not safety," he said.

He noted that Georgia passed a law in 2009 requiring camera operators to increase yellow-light times by one second over the minimum national standard. As a result, the city of Norcross saw a sharp drop in wrecks and people running red lights, according to published reports.

"It makes a difference," Henry said. "The entire state of Georgia thought it was a good idea."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him @markpuente on Twitter.

St. Petersburg council member seeks study on timing of yellow lights 04/03/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 11:36pm]
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