TAMPA, Florida – New statistics indicate red light cameras may have helped reduce the number of serious crashes in Tampa intersections. But a closer examination of the statistics – an analysis the Tampa Police Department (TPD) conducted but never released – indicates crashes in the approach to an intersection soared after installing the cameras.
10 Investigates found TPD only considers an incident an "intersection crash" if it happens within 25 feet of the stop bar. Most neighboring cities and counties use a much greater distance to include possible rear-end accidents.
A recent legislative report indicated red light cameras helped reduce fatal accidents at monitored intersections, but they were also likely responsible for an increase in rear-end accidents since some drivers stop abruptly, particularly if the yellow light is not long enough.
When 10 Investigates started looking into yellow light lengths and crash rates in May 2013, TPD said crash reports could not be pulled using a specific radius from an intersection. But public records requests turned up e-mails from several months earlier that indicated not only had Tampa tracked crashes within a 25-foot radius, but it had also tracked crashes within a 50-foot radius and 100-foot radius of the intersections.
TPD compared data from the 12 months prior to installing cameras (Nov. 1, 2010 to Oct. 31, 2011) to the data in the RLC program's first month. While crashes were down 29 percent within 25 feet of monitored intersections, they were only down 12 percent and 7 percent within 50 feet and 100 feet, respectively.
In fact, accidents between 25 and 50 feet from the intersection – where many rear-end collisions would likely take place – jumped by 68 percent. Public records led 10 Investigates to numerous accident victims and rear-end collisions that were never counted in the city's selected crash stats.
But TPD never released all of its data, instead distributing just the 25-foot statistics to local media outlets and city leadership.
"At 25 feet, you can emphatically state that the intersection had an impact on that particular accident," said Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor. "You go to 100 feet ... it could be you cannot say if that crash was directly impacted by that intersection."
Castor added that TPD had always used 25 feet as a radius for an "intersection crash," dating back to when it first researched installing RLCs. The agency wasn't able to provide any documentation, but Asst. Chief John Bennett said he believed the agency has used 25 feet since around 2007.
Hillsborough County, Sarasota, and Port Richey all use a 100-foot radius to calculate intersection crash data. St. Petersburg (300 ft.) and New Port Richey (250 ft.) use even longer distances, while Manatee Co., Bradenton, and Brooksville all use zero feet, eliminating any accidents in an intersection's approach.
The lack of uniformity is one of the issues that makes it difficult for statewide agencies to track true impacts of red light cameras.
On Monday, TPD released a new report on how crashes have drastically dropped in the second year of its RLC program – an additional 33 percent from the first year – but again, only data within 25 feet was provided. It's not clear what kind of drop would be represented if more rear-end crashes were included.
"Every single distance you've shown (me) shows a decrease in accidents," Castor said of 10 Investigates' records. "So again, we go back to ... its changed behavior."
10 Investigates also first reported the city's once-massive profit margin on the cameras, 2.3 million in FY12, has been all-but eliminated. Changed behavior and longer yellow lights have drastically reduced violations issued.
After the state gets its $83 share of each $158 ticket and camera-provider American Traffic Solutions (ATS) is paid its monthly fee, $3,750 per camera, the city is unlikely to have anything left over in 2014.
Chief Castor and red light camera supporters alike maintain the technology is about safety, not profit.
"What about the cost to the city if removing the cameras leads to more crashes?," ATS spokesman Charles Territo asked rhetorically, pointing to a recent AAA study that indicated a single fatality comes with a $6 million financial impact. "The cost of (administering the program) pales in comparison to the costs of a red-light running injury, fatality, or property damage collision."
ATS, TPD, and the City of Tampa have been very careful about their messaging on the red light camera issue.
An e-mail to ATS, inadvertently copied to 10 Investigates by Tampa public relations and political consultant Beth Leytham, indicated Leytham was consulting with Chief Castor and TPD spokesperson Laura McElroy on talking points.
Leytham also acts as ATS' Florida spokesperson and is a close political confidant of Mayor Bob Buckhorn, whom she regularly meets with.
Last week, 10 Investigates revealed how one City of Tampa engineer pleaded with FDOT not to further extend yellow light intervals, but Castor said TPD doesn't get involved in yellow light timing; she said her job is to simply enforce the law.