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USF researchers question possible increase of red-light cameras

While USF researchers maintain that they cause more harm than good, additional red-light cameras are set for installment at intersections across the Tampa Bay area.

Early this year Barbara Orban, along with Etienne Pracht and John Large from the College of Public Health, updated a 2008 study, in which they claimed, after reviewing other studies, that red-light cameras caused more harm than benefit, often causing drivers to slam on their brakes to avoid being photographed.

Large, who said the pro-camera studies were not statistically robust and had underdeveloped models, found that cameras were often correlated with an increase in accidents. Yet, according to the St. Petersburg Times, as many as 20 new cameras will be installed in Tampa.

“In the best cases, the (research) methods (supporting red light cameras) were questionable,” Large said. “Though their findings were mixed at best, the summaries didn’t show that.”

Large said he has witnessed many of the flaws in studies supporting the cameras after one was installed at the intersection of Fletcher Avenue and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, outside of his office at the College of Public Health.

“Traffic used to be backed up, but now people don’t take that intersection,” Large said. “I don’t avoid those intersections because I can’t blast through the red lights anymore – I avoid it because I don’t want to be rear-ended. Traffic accidents have gone down, but so has volume. It’s that kind of trickery in reporting numbers that we see (is) the case in pro-camera research. They’re doing faulty math, and it’s confusing the public.”

Large said he believes the motivations behind the red-light cameras are not altogether altruistic.

“There is a difference between willful red-light running and accidental red-light running,” he said. “Our interest is in the accidentals. There are not enough willful red-light runners to pay for these (camera) programs. That’s why we think there’s some gaming going on.”

Citations issued for violations under the camera’s surveillance cost $158 – $75 of which is given to the city.

However, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) Cpl. Troy Morgan, said the cameras in Hillsborough County have been installed purely in the interest of public safety.

“It obviously gives enforcement 24/7, 365 days a year – something we in law enforcement can’t do,” he said. “We’re pleased with the results. We had a decline of injury crashes, and though minimal, still a decrease.”

Injury crashes at six intersections with red-light cameras fell from 40 in 2009 to 31 in 2010, according to HCSO statistics, but non-injury-related crashes increased from 235 to 239.

Morgan said the HCSO is lenient in issuing violations, particularly on right turns on red lights, and allow more than what the state constitutes as a violation.

Large said he believes the right-on-red violations often force drivers into impossible situations.

“I dare you to go over Bruce B. Downs (Boulevard) and turn into incoming traffic and make sure you don’t go over 15 miles per hour,” he said. “It’s not safe.”

Joe Kubicki, director of transportation and parking management for the city of St. Petersburg, said the cameras have a strong role in public safety. The city will install 20 new cameras this summer.

“It’s not only something we have out for public safety, but it is a force multiplier for the police department and helps them do their job,” he said. “There’s only a few things we can do beyond engineering, education and enforcement to help public safety, and one of them is technology.”

Large said simpler solutions should be employed before deploying cameras, such as increasing the time of yellow lights, which Morgan said was set by the state, and allowing for a full second between a red and green light to clear an intersection.

“If people are having problems with intersections, there must be a problem with intersections,” he said. “Why assume the drivers? We’re not anti-camera. Our objection is that cameras are going in first, not last after trying all other solutions.”