Traffic camera cash rolls in
By Matt Reinig | Hernando TodayBROOKSVILLE - The lone Chevy locked its brakes and scraped down Broad Street in a plume of tire smoke then stopped underneath the cameras over the intersection of Wiscon Road.
Published: December 26, 2012
Published: December 26, 2012
Why this gentleman did this on a mid-morning last week with no surrounding traffic is debatable, but there's reason to suspect it was to avoid something that this intersection in particular is steadily building a reputation around: $158 tickets.
"The majority of (red-light camera tickets) are on Wiscon and (U.S.) 41," Brooksville Police Chief George Turner said. "It is a dangerous intersection, and as far as I'm concerned they can make people more aware of driving, and that reduces accidents."
Since red-light cameras first started rolling May 18, City of Brooksville's red light camera fund has acquired $253,347 in profit, according to the latest Finance Department records, which constitutes an estimated average of more than $1,000 a day. And with 13 angles of traffic currently under surveillance, the city still has seven more to install to reach its original goal of 20 operational cameras.
"The police department doesn't get anything," Turner said regarding the ticket fees, adding the department takes in as much funding as is needed to operate the cameras, which cost $4,500 a month per camera.
But that's not the case for the city. Sensys, the camera manufacturer, splits the profits 50-50 with the city — each getting half of $75 per ticket after the state takes its $83 share.
"The part that goes to the city goes in a special fund, and I don't think that fund has been assigned yet, so it hasn't been allocated," City Councilman Joe Bernardini said. "There's been discussion of — since the red lights are put up for safety reasons — that it should be possibly for education through the school system. But it's also been brought up to use for streets and sidewalks to make them safer, but it's just been discussion and hasn't been voted on."
When Brooksville first started its red light program, there were supposed to be studies conducted and presented to City Council showing the effectiveness of the cameras and their impact on public safety, Bernardini said. But in the process of redoing the contract with the prior manufacturer, council members voted 3-2 to do away with the project altogether, and those impact studies have yet to be presented.
"The statistics were never provided or shown to me that we really need the cameras, and there was no statistics of wrecks after the cameras were removed," Bernardini said, who voted with Frankie Burnett in opposing red light cameras. "There's just no data. That data is available, it just hasn't been provided to us."
When the state Legislature in 2010 passed the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act allowing red light cameras, it specified that counties or municipalities submit an annual report to the Department of Transportation detailing the results and procedures of the devices. Any complaints submitted to a county or municipality suggesting it is employing traffic infraction detectors for purposes other than the promotion of public health, welfare and safety have to be included in the annual report to the Department of Transportation, which the department includes in its annual summary report to the governor, the president of the state Senate, and the speaker of the state House of Representatives.
Based on its review of the report, the state Legislature can vote to exclude a county or municipality from further participation in the program.
"Let's just call it what it is: It's about getting money, and some of the areas I've seen them in aren't in to prevent accidents," Bernardini said. "Funny thing is, the camera companies get to decide where the cameras go, and they're thinking: Where's this going to generate the most money? And that's where the cameras go."
Vice Mayor Kevin Hohn was recently a councilman when the red light program was brought up the second time. Hohn cast the swing vote approving it, he said, but casted that vote judiciously.
"I read the studies on both sides of the fence, and it's not like I was gung-ho for them or against them; I was right there in the middle of things," Hohn said. "I seriously doubt someone can make the argument that it's about the money. There's arguments against everything in the world these days, but I know what's in my heart, and don't try to tell me it's about money. I know better than that."
The night the city council held a hearing on the issue, he said, he encountered something of an omen.
"I'm driving to the meeting and almost got sideswiped by a guy that ran a red light, and thought, 'Somebody's trying to tell you something, a sign that maybe these red light cameras are a good thing,'" Hohn said. "It was close. Just absolute stupidity. Getting T-boned is perhaps the worst accident you can have, and hopefully this is preventing that."
Whether or not the cameras are in fact preventing accidents, injuries, or fatalities is something the city council intends to better understand, Hohn said, and likely by the middle of next month.
"I haven't seen any studies at all, in fact I haven't seen any statistics, but I heard the statistics were there," Hohn said. "There's still a lot of confusion about what is allowed and what is not allowed.
"As long as we feel there's a safety need for the red lights we'll certainly have them I hope, but if something comes up that shows it's having more accidents than it's preventing, then we'll look that way too."
Peter and Susan Schaefer might have seen the "Photo Enforced" sign with the traffic light graphic on it, they said, but they definitely didn't see the sign underneath it a quarter of the size that reads: "includes right turn." And by the time they rounded the bend and got to the traffic signal, they said, all they could think about was the oncoming cars.
"I was going to pay it, then I thought, 'Nah, this ain't right, man,'" Peter Schaefer said, who was recently issued a $158 ticket for allegedly running a right on red at the intersection of Broad Street and Wiscon. "This is entrapment as far as I'm concerned."
Schaefer contends he came to a complete stop before taking the right on red, which the law allows, and said he wrote a letter to the Brooksville Police Department asking, among other things: Since when is it illegal to take a right turn on red?
"It's the same law that has been in effect since you and I and our parents have been driving," Turner said, adding that there's nothing wrong with taking a right on red at Broad and Wiscon — so long as you come to a complete stop. "Anyone that goes to Broad Street and Wiscon Road and stops at the bar and turns (right) is not getting a ticket. The ticket only goes to somebody who goes through that without stopping."
Turner said when the state Legislature passed the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act, they passed more lenient guidelines than the existing right on red law enforced by Brooksville Police, which can cost $200 instead of $158 and cost four points against a driver's license.
"We try not to give out anything that's questionable at all," Turner said. "There's radar units on the camera that tell us the speed of the car as they approach and go round the intersection, and the majority we give are 10-15 mph."
"If I go around that turn at 8 mph and don't stop, I'm going to get a ticket by an officer if he sees me," Turner said. "The state Legislature determined that you can go through a red light camera (during a right turn) in a rolling stop in a safe and prudent manner, and Brooksville designated that as 5 mph or under."
Even then, Turner said, the department is liable to round that up to 7 mph, since radars have about a 2 mph variation.
Whether drivers like Schaefer are within the acceptable range of speed is a subject of scrutiny, Schaefer said. And granted, while he hasn't seen the available video online that prompted his citation, he has difficulty believing he would risk pulling out onto 41 into oncoming traffic at 10-15 mph.
Turner said some residents issued a citation often do respond with disbelief until they see the video.
"The majority of people look at the video, and say, 'Woops, I didn't know I did that,'" Turner said. "My girlfriend recently got one down south, and she said, 'I did not do that. What should I do?' I said, 'Just pay the $150. You did it.'"
Bernardini suggested, like Hohn, that an explanation for that confusion might come out of misinformation, or misunderstanding of what constitutes an illegal turn. Then again, it could be malfunction, too.
"I do know that if you stop two car lengths behind the line and take off and don't stop again when you get to the line, that can be considered running a red light when you get to the right turn; the law is kind of open regarding right on red, and if you can do it in a safe and prudent manner," Bernardini said. "Those cameras, they're radar detected. I know radars in police officers' cars have to be certified every 6 months. If you're a police officer and you send someone to court for a speeding ticket, you better make sure your radar certification is up to date."
"Now, why aren't those certified if they're issuing that for a citation on how fast you go?"
In order to use red light cameras, under the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act counties and municipalities must enact an ordinance that, among other things, requires signs be posted at designated locations notifying the public that the cameras may be in use.
"My whole beef is you cannot see that sign there," Schaefer said.
Schaefer said he thinks the sign is too far away from the traffic signal, and that the "includes right turn" portion is too small a font.
Under the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act, those "Photo Enforced" signs have to conform to specifications adopted by Florida Department of Transportation. Turner said the city actually received an order from the department to remove a non-state issued sign on U.S. 41 within a day after the city posted it.
"They approve where it is, where it can go and what it looks like," Turner said. "Many people wanted flashing lights on our city council to warn people, but that's illegal. They wouldn't let us do that. … The state is very picky about what they allow on the sides of the roads, because they don't want to clutter the roads with something distracting.."
Under the current agreement, city officials estimate 20 cameras would generate $2.6 million annually, with the city keeping $602,721 after expenses, and the camera contractor $90,000 a month. That equates to 2,400 tickets a month, or roughly 14,400 in a six-month period, to generate $1.08 million — $540,000 for both the city and Sensys.
While Brooksvillians might disagree about the finances, most appear to be on the same page when it comes to safety.
"If it's truly about safety, I can't understand why I have constituents that tell me at Broad and Main people constantly run red lights there, and almost hit pedestrians, so why don't we have the cameras up downtown? It's the historical district," Bernardini said. "It's the historic district and they don't want all these poles and cameras around. But if it's truly a safety issue they should have it where it's truly a danger, not just the places that'll make you money."