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Red Light Cameras Investigated: Florida's right turn trap

9:51 AM, Jul 26, 2013   |    comments
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TAMPA BAY, Florida -- Cities and counties aren't just using short yellow lights to rack up millions of dollars in extra red light camera tickets in Florida; some are also using stricter-than-intended enforcement to issue rolling right tickets to safe drivers.

While this summer's tweaks to red light camera (RLC) legislation were promoted as protection against overzealous ticket-writers, the language that affects right turns-on-red doesn't do very much.  It says the officers that review RLC violations cannot issue a ticket if the driver came to a complete stop, regardless of where the driver stops in relation to the stop bar.

But drivers who stopped a few feet over the stop bar weren't typically getting tickets anyway, because the Mark Wandall Act, which standardized the use of RLC across Florida in 2010, specifies officers should not ticket drivers who make rolling right turns in a "careful and prudent" manner.

TIMELINE: 10 News' Short Yellows Investigation
MAP: Short Yellows in Your Neighborhood

However, every agency has its own interpretation of "careful and prudent." It's allowed some agencies to write half of their RLC citations to drivers making rolling right turns.

Many believe the punishment - $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.

"The city is not held to the same standard of perfection that drivers are held to," Florell said.

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.  However, Florell believes some cities aren't using enough discretion and are violating the spirit of the Mark Wandall Act, which was to increase safety - not pad budgets.

"The right turn-on-red is a tremendous money-maker for the state," Florell said.  "It's basically outsourcing a law enforcement function. And they do it for profit."

A recent Florida Highway Patrol survey found 78% of Florida's 70+ agencies that issue RLC citations don't have a clear definition of what "careful and prudent" means.

"If somebody rolls through and it's a clear and sunny day and there are no pedestrians," said Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Cpl. Adam Brescia, "they're not going to get a ticket."

Brescia said HCSO makes a point not to ticket safe drivers for "rolling rights" because the agency doesn't want drivers to get the impressions the RLCs are designed to be cash cows.

"[The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office] is a little bit more on the liberal end of it," Brescia admitted.

A legislative analysis of a proposed bill to end automated right-turn tickets statewide estimated $24 million of the $101 million in RLC tickets issued last year were for rolling right turns.

RLC supporters point to the technology's reputation for correcting drivers' behavior and Florida's repeated ranking at the bottom of the nation's list for safest streets for pedestrians and cyclists.

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.

Click here to watch a dangerous right turn, provided by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.  Or this series, provided by RLC operator American Traffic Solutions (ATS).

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."

Misleading speed detection

The 10 News Investigators reviewed hundreds of RLC violations and took dozens of measurements at local intersections.  Seldom would the speed on the citations match the speed vehicles were actually traveling when they entered the intersection.

That's because the camera companies record a vehicle's speed not at the intersection, but at an intersection's approach - often before vehicles brake as they make safe, rolling right turns.

Each law enforcement agency sets a threshold to receive right turn violations, and in Pinellas County, a judge ruled any right turn under 12 miles per hour should be considered "careful and prudent."

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. Starting July '13 1 mph  
New Port Richey Starting July '13 15 mph ATS suggested 10 mph; PD considering 15 mph
Oldsmar Yes 12 mph  
Orlando No ---   
Port Richey No ---  
Sarasota Yes 25 mph  
S. Pasadena Yes  12 mph  City considering change to 1 mph
St. Petersburg Yes 12 mph  
Tampa Yes  18 mph  
Temple Terrace Yes  15 mph  
Source: FHP; local law enforcement agencies

But because the citations - ultimately approved or rejected by local law enforcement officers - may have misleading speeds on them, many drivers have been successful at getting tickets dismissed by showing they were, in fact, going less than 12 mph when they rolled through a right turn.

Sometimes, the machines malfunction as well, providing readings such as this supposed 96 mph right turn, which would seem to be an impossible maneuver.

New Port Richey Adds Rolling Right Enforcement

Facing a possible defecit in its RLC program for the first time because of falling violation numbers, the City of New Port Richey is planning on enforcing right turn violations for the first time.

New chief Kim Bogart plans on implementing the changes this month, but tells 10 News he doesn't want to ticket drivers that don't deserve them.

In arranging with ATS to set speed threshholds to trigger right turn violations, the camera company suggested using 10 mph as the minimum speed for a violation - a number lower than almost any other city in Tampa Bay. 

An ATS representative also wrote Bogart, "because you haven't done the right hand turns before, you may want to start out by (writing) more of them."

Bogart tells 10 News he hasn't yet decided on a speed threshold and plans on instructing his officers to use liberal discretion when identifying right-turn-on-red violators.

But Many Tickets Deserved Too

Numerous viewers have also complained to 10 News about close calls or accidents suffered because of careless drivers failing to stop before making rights-on-red.

"I'm for cameras," said Sarasota's Michael Phillips, who has been hit twice crossing the street.  "People aren't stopping on reds. I walk (around town) all the time and people just blow through."

Florida -- and Tampa Bay, especially -- have developed reputations as being unfriendly toward pedestrians and cyclists and it's largely because of distracted drivers as well as drivers running red lights.

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

Help me! I got a Rolling Red 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."

If you decide to appeal a ticket, you can go before a judge (or a local magistrate if the violation occurred after July 1, 2013) and present evidence.

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.

Tallahassee Takeaways

While a number of legislators have pledged to eradicate right turn-on-red violations next year, the citations will face another big hurdle first.

A Hernando County judge has started dismissing every challenged right turn citation from Brooksville's 17 cameras, claiming they are unconstitutional.  Florida's Attorney General Pam Bondi took issue, filing a brief intended to stop the dismissals. The challenge will be heard in court this fall.

And last week, Senate President Don Gaetz' office approved a request for the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) to analyze the "implementation and operation strategies, efficacy, effectiveness, and efficiency of the red light camera program in Florida."

The study, a request from State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, could be the first step toward sweeping reforms of the state's RLC laws in the 2014 session.

TIMELINE: 10 News' Short Yellows Investigation
MAP: Short Yellows in Your Neighborhood

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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