Running a red light isn’t always a victimless crime. Car crashes occur. Sometimes people die.
The death of a South Florida husband and father-to-be was the impetus of the law that made intersection cameras a possible solution to reducing the crime across the state.
In 2003, Mark Wandall was killed in a car accident when a motorist ran a red light at about 48 to 51 miles per hour. His wife, Melissa, launched the Mark Wandall Foundation to prevent further deaths due to drivers running red lights. She actively promoted the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act, which allowed local governments to use intersection cameras.
In May 2010, Governor Charlie Crist signed the bill saying, “When we have an opportunity to make our roads safer and more secure for Floridians and visitors, it is imperative to act.”
Gulf Breeze didn’t wait for the state law. In March 2006, the city became the first city in Florida to begin implementing red light cameras on Highway 98. The city of Pensacola will be implementing them soon.
“The City Council voted to move forward with red light cameras in 2010,” said Derek Cosson, Pensacola spokesman. Two years later, locations have been narrowed down, but none have been confirmed yet.
“We will be targeting the intersections with the most accidents in the city,” Cosson said. “Those would include Ninth and Airport, Ninth and Bayou, Ninth and Creighton, Davis and Fairfield, Ninth and I-110/Chase, Cervantes and Pace, 12th and Bayou and Ninth and College.”
He added, “Looking at the 10 busiest intersections in the city for the five-year period from 2005-2010, there were between 94 and 470 crashes at each of those intersections.”
Setting the Standard
Keeping Highway 98 safe is no easy task for the city of Gulf Breeze. It was former Police Chief Peter Paulding that proposed the red light cameras.
“He is truly the father that birthed this concept,” said Gulf Breeze Mayor Beverly Zimmern. “It’s a success story I’m very proud of.”
In 2004, a Traffic Safety Task Force was created. Twenty-nine recommendations were given and from those, 24 were implemented including the red light cameras.
“We sought best practices in other states and used those operating in Texas at the time as our model,” Paulding, who now administers the city’s red light program, explained. “A city ordinance was created and adopted by city council, vendor secured, contract negotiated and then cameras were installed.”
Now, there are four cameras operating in the city—two at the intersection in front of the school complex and two at the hospital intersection. Paulding credits the cameras as a significant factor in reducing incidents of officer injury and death—traffic related causes have been the biggest cause of line of duty deaths in the past 10 years.
“Traffic crashes have reduced by about 21 percent in the city from 2003 to today,” Paulding said. “That has occurred in spite of a dramatic increase in traffic volume in the city during the same time period.”
Ticket to Ride
Pensacola currently has a test camera in place at 12th Avenue and Summit Boulevard.
“It doesn’t write anybody tickets, but it does pick up a ton of people,” Cosson said.
According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, penalties for running red lights are more lenient. In Florida, penalties are $158, generally lower than speeding tickets, and no points are put on your license. In Gulf Breeze, tickets aren’t automatically issued, but processed by real people—not computers—locally.
“The ticket is seen four separate times by four separate people,” Paulding said. “The last person to confirm is a sworn police officer.”
Paulding said when it comes to determining if a ticket is legitimate they use the “when in doubt, throw it out” method.
There can be exceptions to the rules such as: emergency vehicles, funeral processions and if the car is stolen by a careless driver. Once a ticket is issued including a picture and link to a video of the car running the light, there isn’t much to dispute.
“Last year 25 of the 5,655 violations were challenged in the court and were granted hearings,” Paulding said. “Another 25 violations were also dismissed when owners submitted valid affidavits of defense.”
Drivers have ample opportunities to avoid tickets. Signs notifying drivers of cameras are prevalent, even most GPS devices warn you.
“There are no secrets,” Paulding said.
Some people might argue that the timing between the yellow and red light are altered to create more tickets.
“The timing is actually controlled by Department of Transportation,” Paulding explained. “The cameras are actually set for a 50-mile-per-hour zone, when we’re in a 35-mile-per-hour-zone, giving drivers more time to stop.”
One common question is “Where does the ticket money go?” From July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012, the state of Florida made just under $1 million in red light camera fines. This past year, Paulding said Gulf Breeze made $192,000 from the tickets. After the state takes a cut, the money goes into the revenue stream.
“It’s not a huge money maker,” Cosson said. “The purpose is not to write a gazillion tickets and make a gazillion dollars. Much like fines you’d get for littering or parking in a fire lane, the fines associated with red light cameras will hopefully encourage people not to violate the law.”
Cosson said that some of the money generated from the tickets will go toward Mayor Ashton Hayward’s Economic Development Incentive Fund that he established in 2012-13 city budget.
Getting the Green Light
Pensacola has looked to Gulf Breeze to get a handle on implementing the cameras throughout the city.
“The staff has thoroughly examined the programs in the City of Gulf Breeze and the City of Milton and has spoken with their respective staffs often while developing our program,” Cosson said.
Both Gulf Breeze and Pensacola stress the red light cameras are not just for generating more traffic fines. Improving safety has driven the initiative.
“Safety is really the driving force behind a decision to use red light cameras,” Cosson said.
As Paulding pointed out, a decrease in accidents also means a decrease in insurance claims and hospital bills.
“Red light cameras are an important adjunct to traffic safety and greatly aid the safety of the motoring public,” he said. “Whenever we can continue to provide for the safety of the public we are doing the right thing for everyone.”