New findings by 10 Investigates reveal Manatee County ignored crash stats when choosing red light camera intersections. And it could hurt business.
MANATEE COUNTY, Florida - New findings by 10 Investigates add fuel to the speculation that Manatee County installed red light cameras for the wrong reasons and their strictest-in-the-region policy on "rolling rights" is giving the county a bad reputation.
A review of county documents, obtained through public record requests, shows how Manatee County chose four new camera locations in 2013 based on how many tickets they'd generate, not crash data. Federal guidelines suggest only using red light cameras at dangerous intersections where other countermeasures are unsuccessful.
But of unincorporated Manatee County's 10 most dangerous intersections, as identified by the sheriff's office, only one is currently monitored by red light cameras (Cortez Rd. W at 26th St. W). The county's other seven cameras are monitoring other intersections, like the exit road from the Ellenton Factory Outlets.
Coupled with a policy of ticketing nearly every driver who rolls through a right turn - contrary to the intention of the law - and Manatee County is developing a reputation of being a traffic "trap." Lawmakers, county commissioners, and 10 Investigates have all been receiving letters from visitors who have vowed to boycott the area after receiving red light camera tickets.
"This is a money-making scam," Richard Armstrong from Towson, Maryland, wrote in a letter to 10 Investigates and public officials. "I have to tell you I will be thinking long and hard before I return to Florida."
"I am moving my RV to Sarasota County and will not frequent any business in Manatee County," promised Dr. Marilyn Terry, a seasonal visitor from Missouri. "In addition, I am going to scour the Internet for online sites to leave reviews regarding Manatee County."
Emails have also been pouring into 10 Investigates from local residents.
"It seems little more than a fund-raising effort," wrote long-time Manatee County resident Jack DiPasqua. "I'd rather have donated it to my kid's county public schools instead of getting fleeced by the Manatee County traffic folks.
Prior to July 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. And they've been sensitive about the area developing a negative reputation.
"We survive on visitors," said state Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. "You never want to get the reputation of being Draconian or visitor unfriendly."
Galvano said he has always supported red light cameras but is open to changes, especially if it means clearing up the confusion over what "careful and prudent" means on a right turn.
However, with just two days left in the legislative session, efforts to reform and clarify the law face an uphill battle.
Manatee County Commissioners again declined to comment on 10 Investigates' findings, but they called for a legal analysis on the RLC law to see if the county can have any leniency on "rolling rights." A report is due back to commission on May 20.