Mail travels a little slowly between the seven miles that separate the offices of Flagler County government with Palm Coast’s.
The evening of Sept. 17 the Flagler County Commission approved sending a letter to the city urging it not put up red-light spy cameras on State Road 100. The full letter was published that evening, and the city council had a meeting the next morning, but it was only Tuesday that Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts, at the end of a workshop, noted that “we did receive, finally a letter from Barbara Revels, the chairman of the county commission, imploring us not to install red-light cameras on State Road 100.”
The council ridiculed the letter and took advantage of its somewhat poor writing to mis-characterize the county’s intentions.
“To me the argument was weak,” Netts said, summarizing the letter’s main thrust as this: “We’d rather have people driving unsafely than not.”
It was not an honest reading of the letter. At no point had Revels so much as implied that county residents would rather drive unsafely than face red-light cameras. She raised several issues with the cameras, none of them unusual, none of them new. Residents, Revels said, have written her that “they currently avoid shopping in Palm Coast’s core area due to the traffic and Red Light Cameras.” Revels did not want business activity inhibited by the cameras, never suggesting that drivers should have a freer hand to break the law. She mentioned the effect on tourists, who might also recoil at the surveillance devices, get a bad taste about the county, and spread negative words of mouth about the city and the county, hurting the county’s economically driven tourism efforts.
City council members, who can at times appear more smug than thoughtful, did not engage with any of the issues Revels brought up, erecting instead the straw man of law-breaking drivers only to bash it down.
“The idea that you wouldn’t shop in a city because it requires you to obey the law,” Council member Bill McGuire sneered.
“And quite frankly if you’re that bad a driver that you can’t obey the law, maybe I’d rather you shouldn’t” shop in Palm Coast, the mayor added.
Palm Coast’s red-light cameras have been in place since 2007. The cameras, operated by American Traffic Solutions, operate at 10 intersections. Palm Coast and ATS plan to increase the number of operating cameras (not intersections) to 52, which will guarantee Palm Coast close to $400,000 in revenue each year, because the city will make $700 per camera per month, whether the camera generates enough traffic tickets or not. For both ATS and the city, the only way to make the system lucrative was to drastically increase the number of cameras, particularly since the state now takes 52 percent of the revenue.
Still, Netts and fellow-council members still claim that it’s not about the money. Rather, they say, it’s about safety. But they don’t know whether the cameras are making the city safer. They only claim it is. They have no evidence. Palm Coast never conducted a scientific analysis of the effectiveness of its cameras. The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t conducted such an analysis, nor have the county’s and city’s fire departments. All they have is anecdotal evidence, because analyses are expensive–and what analyses do exist elsewhere undermine Palm Coast’s claims that it is primarily about safety (rather than money). At best, studies show conflicting positives and negatives for red-light cameras.
One of the most authoritative studies on red light cameras was conducted by the Federal Highway Administration in 2005 (see below), found flaws in most studies conducted to date, while its own conclusions were that with red-light cameras, right-angle crashes decreased, but rear-end crashes increased, and “the positive effects were somewhat lower that those reported in many sources” previously. But there were slight positive effects–as long as the sites selected for cameras were calibrated to the higher incidence of T-bone crashes at those intersections. No such calibration is taking place in Palm Coast, because no rigorous analyses of crash data at various intersections has been conducted. And the study pointed to the need for more data.
Meanwhile, as red-light cameras have proliferated, so has a backlash, with many communities considering and turning down such cameras, or removing them after seeing them in action. Some (like the city of Westminster, Ma., which just removed them) cited the issues Revels did: the cameras don’t reduce accidents so much as cause a different type of accident, rear-endings especially. They inhibit drivers who bridle at automated cameras shooting license plates–thus accusing the car owner of an infraction, whether the owner was at the wheel of the car or not: those issues have led to a class-action federal suit in Florida, which is still pending. Two state appeals court in Florida have reached different conclusions about the legality of the cameras, likely leaving it to the Florida Supreme Court to settle the matter.
The legality and effectiveness of the cameras is nowhere near settled because questions about the cameras abound. However clumsily in its letter, the county was raising some of those questions when it asked the Palm Coast City Council to consider them. The council chose not to. “We’ve already taken action,” Netts said, and the council was not interested in further action.