CLEARWATER – In a moment of inattention in 2008, Clearwater Beach resident John Doran, who was then a City Councilmember, drove through a red light and T-boned another vehicle. Nobody was seriously hurt, but Doran’s beloved 1963 Willys Jeep station wagon was nearly totaled. Not wanting others to make the same mistake, Doran became a crusader for red-light cameras in Clearwater.
Based on 2009-10 data, the city’s traffic engineering department identified three approaches to two intersections with a higher-than-normal rate of red-light running and crashes and hired Redflex Inc. to place cameras at those locations to study the problem of red-light running. Cameras were installed at the eastbound lanes at South Fort Harrison Avenue and Chestnut Street, and at the eastbound and westbound approaches to the intersection of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road.
During a “public education campaign” in the month of July 2012, violators were merely given a warning. But starting one minute after midnight on July 31, violators were sent “Notices of Violation” requiring them to pay a $158 fine.
At the Sept. 30 Clearwater City Council work session, Maj. Daniel Slaughter of the Clearwater Police Department briefed the councilmembers on what the camera system found in its first year of operation. He said that red-light runners are only a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the motorists who drive through the intersections where the cameras are located.
The month during which the most infractions occurred at the intersection of Chestnut Street and South Fort Harrison Avenue was May 2013, when 440 violators were ticketed. But that was less than 0.08 percent of the 551,867 vehicles that used that route thatmonth.
The busiest month for violations in the intersection of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road was August 2012, when 461 violators, or less than 0.07 percent of the 693,912 eastbound cars that month, were ticketed. For the westbound lanes of that intersection, the 552 violators ticketed represented less than 0.09 percent of the 648,910 westbound cars.
From July 1, 2011 to July 1, 2012, serious “long form” crashes declined 10.05 percent, from 1,403 to 1,262 in Clearwater, Slaughter told the Council. But they only declined 0.49 percent, from 14,209 to 14,139, countywide.
The two crashes caused by red-light runners at the intersection of Chestnut Street and South Fort Harrison Avenue between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012 were 18.18 percent of the total crashes there that year, and the one crash that occurred there between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013 was 4.76 percent of the total for that period.
The one crash caused by a red-light runner between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012 was 3.45 percent of the total crashes at the intersection of Gulf-to Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road during that period. The five crashes caused by red-light runners between July 1, 2012 and June 31, 2013 was 4.50 percent of the total crashes there.
Slaughter told of an instance in which several eyewitnesses blamed one motorist for running a red light and causing an accident. “Because of the red-light camera, CPD was able to prove that the driver did not run the red light,” and the other party was at fault, Slaughter said.
Earlier this year, Florida enacted a statute that requires cities with red-light cameras to give ticketed motorists a forum in which to appeal their tickets. Some municipalities scrapped their red-light camera programs rather than go through that trouble and expense, but Clearwater merely added that job to the duties of its Municipal Code Enforcement Board. Motorists who lose their appeal can have an additional $250 fee added to the $158 cost of the ticket.
Vice Mayor Paul Gibson said that the threat of being caught by a camera might cause some motorists to slam on the brakes when the light turns yellow and get rear-ended by the car behind them. While there is some evidence of that, which may have been caused by a midterm change in the way the data was calculated, Maj. Slaughter and Paul Bertels, the head of Clearwater’s Traffic Engineering Department, urged the council to wait until the newness of the program wears off before drawing any conclusions about its effectiveness.
The council agreed to revisit the subject a year from now.