10 News Investigators: Manatee County red light cameras now among state's strictest for right turns

8:07 PM, Oct 3, 2013   |    comments
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TAMPA BAY, Florida -- A recent tweak to the state's red light camera law was designed to reduce the number of safe drivers receiving automated tickets. However, Manatee County is using the tweak to triple the number of tickets it issues.

In July, 10 News followed up the "Yellow Light Trap" investigation by exposing the "Rolling Red Trap" -- cities and counties not following the state's guidelines and ticketing drivers who made right-turns-on-red in a "safe and prudent" manner. The law was written with the intentions of sparing safe drivers who may not have come to a full and complete stop.

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But when State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, added language to the law -- it prevented cities and counties from issuing red light camera (RLC) violations to drivers who rolled over the stop bar, then came to a complete stop, then proceeded right -- Manatee County used the opportunity to start writing more "rolling right" tickets.

While every city and county has its own interpretation of the "careful and prudent" standard, Manatee Co. -- which didn't issue right-turn-on-red tickets at all before the July 1 law change -- now issues tickets to anyone who failed to come to a complete stop while making a right-on-red, regardless of speed or safety. Most communities -- and several judges -- have set speed minimums (i.e. 12 mph) to indicate a turn may not have been "safe and prudent."

The county reports it was not turning a profit from RLC through May, when it was averaging just 367 violations a month. In June, when new cameras were installed, the number jumped to 1,236. And in July, when right turns were enforced, that number soared to 3,436.

In August, Manatee County issued 3,348 citations, while its on-pace to issue nearly 2,500 in September.

Many believe the punishment -- a $158 fine, whether the driver is well-intended and makes a run-of-the-mill, everyday "rolling right," or is a habitual offender blatantly ignoring the law -- doesn't always fit the crime.

While Florida law mandates drivers "come to a complete stop at the marked stop line" before making a right-on-red, most law enforcement officers would use their own discretion in deciding which offenders to ticket. Critics say right-turn tickets violate the spirit of the state's RLC law since it was designed to increase safety -- not pad budgets.

Low-risk maneuver; high-profit violation

A 1995 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report concluded, "less than 0.2 percent of all fatalities involved a right-turning vehicle maneuver at an intersection where RTOR is permitted." And a recent analysis of Florida crash data indicated only 0.4% of crashes were a result of right turns.

Yet in the City of Tampa, "rolling right" violations accounted for 20% of all RLC tickets in the first half of 2013.

And in St. Petersburg, where a city analysis also showed only 0.4% of crashes were caused by rights-on-red, nearly 40% of all citations in 2011 were for right turns. That number has since dropped to 28% for the six-month time period concluding Apr. 30, 2013.

"In many cases, (rolling rights) can be low-risk maneuvers," said St. Petersburg Police spokesperson Michael Puetz. "But they also cause accidents from time to time...and just one of those can cause a fatality."

While rare, accidents caused by drivers rolling through right turns recklessly have a high rate of injury and death, because pedestrians or cyclists are often involved.

"Florida is No. 1 in the nation for pedestrian & cyclist deaths," said Charles Territo with RLC company American Traffic Solutions. "Right turn on reds are exceptionally, exceptionally dangerous."

A city-by-city look at automated right turn ticketing:

City Issue Rolling Red Tickets? Min. Right Turn Speed Cited Notes
Bradenton Yes 15 mph
Brooksville Yes 5 mph
Clearwater No ---
Gulfport Yes 12 mph
Haines City No ---
Hillsborough Co. Yes 15 mph
Kenneth City Yes 12 mph
Lakeland Yes Not available
Manatee Co. Yes 1 mph Started right turns in July 2013
New Port Richey Yes 15 mph Started right turns in July 2013
Oldsmar Yes 12 mph
Orlando No ---
Port Richey No ---
Sarasota Yes 25 mph
S. Pasadena Yes 12 mph
St. Petersburg Yes 12 mph
Tampa Yes 18 mph
Temple Terrace Yes 15 mph
Source: FHP; local law enforcement agencies

Help me! I got a ticket!

Many drivers -- including the deputy attorney for the City of St. Petersburg -- have had luck arguing their cases in court, claiming their right turn was "careful and prudent."

10 News cannot provide legal advice, but can provide tools that might help you if you decide to contest a red light camera ticket.

If you decide to appeal a ticket, you can go before a local magistrate to present evidence. You may also ignore the ticket for 60 days, let it turn into a Uniform Traffic Citation (UTC), then contest the ticket before a judge. However, losing an appeal can cost you another $100 or more.

Dry road conditions, light traffic, and no presence of pedestrians/cyclists are all things that can help support a "careful and prudent" argument.

But you can also determine speed measurements if you want to demonstrate - as the 10 News Investigators did - that some drivers were getting tickets for right turns that were well-below 12 mph.

  1. If you receive a citation, you can go online to watch it (works best in Internet Explorer).
  2. Take a video of it using your cell phone or Flipcam.
  3. Using a web-, computer-, or phone-based video editor, find out how many seconds passed between the time your front wheel crossed the stop bar and your rear wheel crossed the stop bar. (most video programs have 30 frames per second)
  4. Measure the distance between your vehicle's front wheels and rear wheels (in feet).
  5. Divide the distance between the wheels by the seconds it took to cross the stop bar. This is how many feet per second you were traveling.
  6. Convert ft/sec to mph.

While many other factors can play into an officers' decision to approve or reject an automated RLC violation, knowing your true speed on a rolling right turn can help make your case.

Other "rolling right" information:

  • The law requires the city or county to prove your turn was not done in a "safe & prudent" manner. But as 10 News showed this summer, many "safe & prudent" turns are still ticketed even though a judge would often overturn them.
  • 10 News also showed the RLC's speed sensors are not always accurate, especially on right turns. This is relevant because some cities and counties use speed to define "safe & prudent".
  • A 2011 Federal Highway Administration study in Illinois showed the magnetic vehicle sensors malfunction 12% of the time in ideal weather, often registering faster-than-actual speeds.
  • Were you the one driving the vehicle? If not, be prepared for the magistrate to ask you to assign the violation to another driver.

If you got a ticket going straight through a red light:

  • Was the yellow light at the RLC long enough? Use 10 News' map of local intersections to see if the light met the state's minimum.
  • In May, the state admitted the minimum was too short for many Florida drivers and ordered an increase in the minimum by an additional 0.4 seconds by the end of the year. This September memo has the new minimums. Has this light been too short for drivers to safely react? Would that 0.4 seconds have made a difference in your violation?

Beware...

  • Failure to win your appeal will likely result in an additional "administrative fee" tacked onto your fine, charged by the city or county, to pay for the hearing.
  • Fees are typically in the $100 range and vary by municipality, but some run as much as an additional $250.
  • As other media outlets have suggested, the burden of proof is seemingly shifted to the defendent and even the most innocent of drivers may have trouble disproving his/her guilt.

If you disapprove of the current system, speak to your local legislator and lobby for change.

Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.com.

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