Manatee County's cameras create 'Right Turn Trap'

MANATEE COUNTY, Florida - A change to red light camera ticketing policy involving strict enforcement of "rolling right turns" has thousands of drivers dealing with $158 fines they likely would not have received in other Tampa Bay-area counties.

In June 2013, Manatee County was barely receiving enough revenue from its red light camera (RLC) safety program to cover the cost of the program. A county spokesperson wrote 10 Investigates at the time, "Manatee's red light cameras are intended to change behaviors and not to generate revenue. After eight or nine months since installation, the county has received a total of about $600 (after expenses)."

But on July 1, when state law required the sheriff's office to get more involved in the automated tickets, Manatee County started issuing "rolling right" citations, thus quadrupling its RLC revenue. In the eight months following the switch, Manatee County's eight intersection approaches issued more than $4 million in fines, with approximately $2 million passing through county coffers.

Manatee County's aggressive ticketing for routine, slow "rolling right" maneuvers -- generally considered safe by traffic engineers -- is unmatched in Tampa Bay, with most other local communities offering various degrees of leniency. The Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act, which standardized the use of RLC across Florida in 2010, specifies officers should not ticket drivers who make rolling right turns in a "careful and prudent" manner.

Lawmakers behind the bill have said they didn't want communities putting profits over safety.

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But the Manatee County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) cites any driver caught approaching the red light at more than 12 miles per hour, even if there is no other traffic or pedestrians present. If the driver comes to an absolute stop before proceeding, he/she will not be ticketed. Most other local agencies use higher speed thresholds, and still reject many potential "rolling right" violations that appear to be "safe and prudent."

MCSO rejects more than half of its potential violations caught on-camera, but an observation of a recent appeals hearing indicates most of the county's tickets are currently going to drivers who make slow, rolling right turns. Hearing officers quickly dismiss any notion that the "careful and prudent" language matters.

Low-risk maneuver; high-profit violation

A 1995 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report concluded "less than 0.2 percent of all fatalities involved a right-turning vehicle maneuver at an intersection where RTOR is permitted." And a recent analysis of Florida crash data indicated only 0.4 percent of crashes were a result of right turns.

Yet a 10 Investigates analysis of red light camera data indicates nearly 75 percent of Manatee County's current citations are for "rolling rights."

MCSO was unable to provide a breakdown of how many cars captured on-camera rolling through right turns on red are ultimately issued the $158 tickets. But deputies say residents and visitors alike should know the rules.

"Most of the states I know of," said longtime traffic Sergeant Mike Kenyon. "The right hand turns (on red) are all the same – 'stop.'"

Kenyon said the law is applied differently community-to-community because it requires local interpretation. He said he'd welcome clarification from the legislature, but efforts to address controversial right turn tickets have struggled amid heavy industry lobbying.

"That's not there right now," Kenyon said of clarification. "There's nothing that says that. All I have to go by is the video, my own judgment, and what I consider 'safe & prudent.'"

Misleading speed detection

Last year, 10 Investigates reviewed hundreds of RLC violations and took dozens of measurements at local intersections. In every case, the speed reported by the camera vendors was higher than the actual speed of the vehicle crossing the stop bar.

That's because the camera companies record a vehicle's speed not at the intersection, but at an intersection's approach -- often before vehicles brake to make their right turns on red.

Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube, who told 10 News that any driver going above 12 miles per hour on a right turn was not "safe and prudent," admitted he didn't know where the speed sensors were located.

A look at automated right-turn-on-red (RTOR) ticketing by community:

CityMin. Speed for RTOR Tickets
Bradenton15 mph
Brooksville5 mph
ClearwaterNone issued
Gulfport12 mph
Haines CityNone issued
Hillsborough Co.15 mph
Kenneth City12 mph
LakelandNot available
Manatee Co.12 mph
New Port Richey15 mph
Oldsmar12 mph
OrlandoNone issued
Port RicheyNone issued
Sarasota25 mph
S. Pasadena12 mph
St. Petersburg12 mph
Tampa18 mph
Temple Terrace15 mph
Source: FHP; local law enforcement agencies

Targeting profits over safety?

Sheriff Steube also said he wasn't aware ticket revenue exploded because of the "rolling right" enforcement, and he said he hadn't received any letters from upset drivers. Steube said MCSO provided crash data to the county when it was considering new camera locations last year, but had little other communication with the county on the program.

However, public record requests pointed 10 Investigates to the worksheet county staff and its camera vendor, Xerox, used to place four new cameras last summer. Crash data and safety issues were not used on the worksheet; instead, camera placements were chosen by ease of generating citations.

Of the 10 most dangerous intersections identified by the sheriff's office from 2009-2013, only one currently has a red light camera (Cortez Rd. W at 26th St. W). Instead, cameras are cranking out tickets at intersections like 60th Ave. E and US-301, the exit of the outlet mall at Ellenton.

Change coming?

All seven county commissioners declined numerous interview requests, but after numerous questions from 10 Investigates and constituents, Commissioner Betsy Benac convinced her colleagues to direct the County Attorney's Office to explore if there was any flexibility in the "careful and prudent" language.

"If there's flexibility in the law," Benac said, "we should have it."

Commission is slated to take the topic up again on May 20; good news for some drivers, but too late for many that will receive $158 tickets in the mail before then.

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