TAMPA, Florida – While new crash stats raise even more questions about the effectiveness of red light cameras in Florida, city leaders in Tampa are digesting the data ahead of Thursday's council discussion on the future of the controversial program.
The state's annual report on red light cameras (RLC) reveals an increase in reported crashes at a sample of 276 camera-monitored intersections across Florida. While the report suggests the increase may be due to an increase in crash reporting – statewide crash reporting at non-camera intersections increased as well – the new numbers further cloud the debate over whether the cameras are more effective at improving safety or raking in revenue.
10 Investigates has shown through years of red light camera reporting that many communities ignored engineering advice and best practices on roadway safety in favor of lucrative red light cameras. Now, with questionable results, constitutional challenges, and upset constituents, many politicians are trying to end their city's RLC contracts.
The state report also indicated large jumps in the kind of crashes with the best data reporting – serious and fatal accidents. At intersections with RLC installed between January 2012 and September 2014, Florida saw post-camera installation increases in fatal crashes (13%), incapacitating injuries (29%), and crashes involving non-motorists, such as bicyclists and pedestrians (17%). The report cautions a number of factors may have contributed to the increases, including a surge in miles driven as gas prices continue to drop.
But the state report offers little in terms of evidence to bolster RLC supporters' arguments that the technology is saving lives. Those advocates may, however, cling to a silver lining in Tampa's newest RLC analysis.
Following a 10Investigates report in July that pointed out Mayor Bob Buckhorn's robust RLC safety claims had no recent analysis to back them up, Tampa's city council ordered staff to compile new RLC-related crash stats. After failing to do so for months, the city released its newest numbers this week.
The city's report showed crash reports at 23 RLC intersections – the most in all of West Florida - climbed by 40% since 2010, which was less than the city's 47% overall increase in reported crashes during that time. Tampa did not include "fender bender" types of crashes, as the state did, only "crash reports where there were reported injuries or a vehicle was damaged to the extent that it had to be towed from the scene."
Those findings seem to conflict with the state's findings, which indicated crashes jumped by 50% at eight intersections in Tampa after cameras were installed. Tampa's report also didn't indicate what radius was used for defining an "intersection," a controversial variable that, in 2014, 10Investigates WTSP exposed as a way to eliminate certain crashes from a statistical analysis.
Overall, the city's analysis seems to echo 10Investigates' July findings, which suggested the performance of the 55 cameras may be more of a mixed bag than Buckhorn was suggesting, and that some intersections saw big crash increases after cameras were installed.
Requests for comment from Buckhorn's office went unreturned Monday and Tuesday. With fewer than 36 hours until the report is to be presented at city council, city staff still had not posted the statistics on council's online agenda as of Tuesday night, but you can read them here.
In recent years, Tampa has put more focus on improving intersection safety through lighting and other engineering countermeasures, but some council members have suggested it isn't enough.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Jeff Brandes tells 10Investigates he'll try for legislative mandates to require communities with red light cameras to put profits toward countermeasures such as restriping, improved lighting, and improved signage. The state's annual surveys of more than 70 communities with red light cameras indicate many communities turned to RLCs before other proven countermeasures, and years later, many still haven't done anything to improve the safety at problematic intersections other than installing cameras, even though federal guidelines suggest the cameras should not be the first measure.
"What we've seen is a trend - year over year now - accidents have been unchanged or they're going up. And this (report) says they're going up," Brandes said. "We've never seen any evidence that (red light cameras) actually reduced accidents. What we've seen is that the state is bringing in $150 million a year in red light camera revenue."
A spokesman from Florida's leading camera provider, American Traffic Solutions (ATS), came to the opposite conclusion after reading the state's report.
"While crashes statewide have increased by nearly 50 percent," said ATS Vice President Charles Territo, "angle crashes - those resulting from red light running - have actually slightly decreased. As populations and vehicle miles traveled continue to grow law enforcement will rely on technology like red-light safety cameras to enhance road safety."
Fewer cities using cameras
Tuesday night, Gulfport became the latest local city to vote to end its RLC contract, as city council voted unanimously to turn off the cameras when its contract runs out in March.
St. Petersburg, Kenneth City, and Temple Terrace also decided to end their camera contracts in recent years, while some smaller cities, such as Brooksville and Haines City, have retreated on votes to scrap their programs as they found the threat of financial penalty from the red light camera companies too severe. The city of Oldsmar also voted to end their program, but ATS is currently challenging that decision.
Tampa is expected to discuss its red light camera stats Thursday, while a State Senate committee is expected to address the state stats on Wednesday.
10Investigates will continue to dig into the numbers and update this story Wednesday.