A multi-year analysis of crash data at intersections with red-light cameras in Florida, including Palm Coast, shows a distinct increase in total crashes, including angle-crashes and rear-end crashes, an increase in fatalities, and a dramatic increase in incapacitating injuries.
The analysis from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles belies claims by red-light camera supporters that the devices improve safety at traffic intersections and provide new ammunition to state lawmakers intent on eliminating red-light camera programs. (Sen. Travis Hutson, who represents all of Flagler County, has previously supported the repeal of red-light cameras.)
“The purpose of red-light cameras is not about safety. It’s about money,” Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, told the News Service of Florida. “We finally have the proof we need.” Artiles has filed legislation on several occasions to end the use of red-light cameras. He’s doing so again this year, with support from Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who oversees the state transportation budget. Senate Bill 178 would eliminate the cameras by 2020.
The total number of crashes at intersections increased from 5,107 crashes before cameras were installed to 5,625 after the cameras were installed, a 10.1 percent increase that exceeds the 8.3 percent increase in overall vehicle miles traveled during the same period. The number of angle crashes, which red-light cameras are supposed to reduce, increased by 6.7 percent. The number of rear-end crashes, long associated with the emplacement of red-light cameras, increased 11.4 percent. Fatal crashes doubled, from five to 10, and crashes resulting in incapacitating injuries increased 27 percent, from 153 to 194.
There was a 1.8 percent decline in crashes involving non-incapacitating injuries, a 3.1 percent decline in collisions involving vehicles running red lights, and a 20 percent decline in crashes that involved pedestrians.
“The crash analysis should be put into context of the overall complexity of the issue at hand, as many factors may contribute to the change in number of crashes outlined in this report,” the analysis, released on Dec. 31, notes. Among those qualifying factors is the fact that there is no uniform tracking system, wither of red-light camera data overall nor of crash data at camera-equipped intersections, where some jurisdictions include precise GPS coordinates in crash reports (thus facilitating more accurate analysis) and some not.
Palm Coast took part in the survey, but reported data from only two of its intersections, where it showed 10 crashes before cameras were installed, declining to eight after.
Palm Coast first installed red-light cameras in 2007 and has had them since, at one point approved increasing the number of cameras to 52, though it never got that high. The city reduced its number of cameras to just five in 2015, though four are actually active currently. Palm Coast’s cameras are set to come down this year as the city’s contract with American Traffic Solutions ends. ATS runs most of the state’s red-light camera programs, paying Palm Coast $350 per camera per month regardless of the number of flashes or tickets generated, thus generating $16,800 for the city’s Street Improvement Fund. The company then takes a portion of the profits from ticketing (each ticket is $158), sending the rest to the state.
The city’s contract with American Traffic Solutions is scheduled to end this year. The city has often defended the use of cameras and claimed, with no solid evidence, that the cameras made intersections safer. The cameras became lightning rods for public and at times official criticism, including criticism from two local judges and a former clerk of court, and the Florida Supreme Court in 2014 declared pre-2010 red-light camera programs such as Palm Coast’s illegal. Later that same year, an appeals court declared key provisions of post-2010 programs illegal as well, forcing Palm Coast and many other governments either to suspend or scale back their programs—and to realize that red-light cameras were not worth the bad publicity or bureaucratic hassles.
The department based its analysis on data from January 2013 to April 2016 at intersections where the cameras were on throughout the period. Crashes occurring within 250 feet of the intersection were analyzed before and after the installation of cameras at each intersection, and crashes occurring anywhere other than the roadway, such as in nearby parking lots, were eliminated.
68 local governments responded to the survey—all those with red-light cameras in place—but only 59 of those had functioning red-light camera programs, with a total of 688 actual cameras active as of mid-year in 2016, down from 965 two years before, a decrease of 29 percent. Six governments eliminated their red-light camera program in the past year, an additional 15 reduced the number of cameras in place. And another 11 told the state they were ending their program the following year. But even as the number of cameras has declined, the number of issued violations has increased–by 27 percent in the last year of the analysis alone, suggesting that companies are trying to make up for the loss of camera emplacements with increased flashes.
In 2015-16, 1.23 million red-light camera citations were issued statewide (they’re officially called “notices of violation), with 150,530 of those to repeat offenders, a significant increase from the 55,400 citations to repeat offenders the previous year. Almost a third of the notices were unpaid, and were converted into state-issued Uniform Traffic Citations. The state budget received $60 million from fines generated by red-light camera tickets, with $53 million going to cities, counties and private companies running the programs, such as ATS.