By now you have likely heard the news; on March 21st, Gulfport will start using photo enforcement cameras for red light violations. This will make us the third city in Pinellas County (behind Kenneth City and South Pasadena) to implement these measures. Likely to follow will be the cities of St. Petersburg and Oldsmar, both of whom are now in planning stages.
I have been involved in this project for three years now, and in that time I have become intimately familiar with the details. Armed with this information, and from my perspective as police chief, I am confident we are moving in the right direction.
There are those who say that red light cameras are about revenue and not safety. They say that the cameras actually have little effect on reducing traffic crashes, and that they may in fact increase crashes. Some claim that the enforcement mechanism is unfair or even unconstitutional.
To all of these, I say they are simply wrong.
Yes, red light camera enforcement will probably result in revenue for the city. I am just not sure why that is such a concern. Cities have been receiving revenue from traffic fines since roads were first built. The only difference with this program is that citations will be issued via an automated process rather than a police officer. So the true question becomes this: do we really need to issue that many citations?
The answer lies in the fact that more people are killed and seriously injured in traffic crashes than in all forms of crime combined. The worst of these crashes typically involve a red light violation. If we truly want to put resources where the problems lie, then we need to put as much as possible into traffic enforcement. Unfortunately, the budget situation simply won't allow us to employ enough officers to do the level of enforcement we ought to be doing. So when an option comes along that allows me to catch almost 100 percent of violators without having to deploy a single officer, I'm all for it.
Photo enforcement reduces crashes and saves lives. Period. I have personally looked at many of the studies that purport to show otherwise, and I have found major issues with their results. For example, one publication suggested red light cameras caused crashes to increase in Los Angeles. Detailed review, however, shows that the "researcher" was including crashes within a block of the intersection, whether or not related to the traffic signal. When those irrelevant crashes were excluded, the results were the opposite: crashes at camera-controlled intersections had decreased.
Also note the February, 2011 study released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). This independent organization found that red-light-running crashes reduced 35% from 2004 to 2008 in the 14 largest cities with red light cameras in operation.
Due process means you have the right to challenge your accuser and present evidence on your behalf. Every person who receives a violation notice from a photo enforcement program will have that right. The process for these types of violations is no different than it is for any other; a traffic court magistrate will rule based on the evidence presented from both sides. What makes photo enforced violations different is the fact that the vehicle owner, and not necessarily the driver, is the responsible party. That issue brings about claims of unfairness.
Consider this, however. Courts have upheld the eviction of tenants based on the unruly behavior of guests. The government also holds taxpayers accountable for false returns completed by a third party. Even police are allowed to seize property used in the commission of a crime when the owner is not the one using said property. The major argument behind all of these is that the owner bears responsibility in exercising control over his or her property. Red light violations are no different. Vehicle owners must scrutinize those to whom they consider lending their cars. If a citation is issued, the owner can always demand that the borrower pay up or risk losing the right to borrow the vehicle in the future.
Pinellas County has among the highest traffic crash injury and death rates in the United States. Our society, and Gulfport is no exception, cannot afford NOT to take advantage of every opportunity to address this situation. The use of a camera enforcement program precisely targets the main problem while allowing us to use our existing resources on other issues. If we happen to end up with some money in the end, so be it.