Red light runners may be on camera

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By Pat Hibbs

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the only traffic signal at the "Top of the Hill" in Williston was a flashing light. Today sophisticated electronic devices and turn lanes control the vehicles flowing through that intersection and three others in town. In the not too distant future, additional hardware may appear at some of those junctures.

At its Dec. 4 meeting, the Williston City Council heard a presentation from Traffipax, a manufacturer of traffic safety systems. The company proposes to install cameras at selected intersections in Williston to identify vehicles that cross the intersection after the light has turned red.

Larry Mathieson, former police chief of Ormond Beach and a representative of Traffipax, cited Gulf Breeze as an example of a successful use of his company's system.

Gulf Breeze is a city of about 6,000 on Florida's panhandle, on the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola. Traffic streams through the area on U.S. Highway 98, much of it headed to the Pensacola Naval Air Station and the region's famous beaches.

One of the most heavily traveled intersections, at Daniel Drive, provides access to small shopping malls and to the campuses of the city's three schools. According to Gulf Breeze police chief Peter Paulding, when that intersection was reconfigured in early 2006, the Traffipax camera system for detecting vehicles that run red lights was installed.

Paulding said that a citizen advisory board had included the system among 29 recommendations to generally improve traffic safety in the city.

The laser system records two pictures of a vehicle crossing the stop line after the light has turned red and superimposes the date and time of the alleged infraction on the tape. Specially trained police personnel review the tapes before violations notices are issued by the company. Paulding said that he uses a School Resource Officer and an investigator for this task, because each one can perform it when his other duties allow. Paulding estimates that the daily review process takes a total of about five to 10 hours per week.

Paulding emphasized that running a red light is an infraction of a city ordinance, a civil matter, and not covered by Florida traffic law. A "violations notice" is not a ticket, he said, and it has no effect on a driver's license. (In any case, only the owner of the vehicle can be identified by camera surveillance.)

Signage is provided on U.S. 98 warning of the use of cameras for traffic enforcement.

After the tapes are properly reviewed, Traffipax sends notices to the owners of the offending vehicles. Gulf Breeze has established $100 as its fine.

Paulding said that about 3,000 citations have been issued since the inception of the system in Gulf Breeze, and that more than 1,500 have been paid. At this time, Gulf Breeze has no collection procedures in place, though Paulding said that consideration is being given to instituting follow-up procedures. He added that city residents who are offenders must pay the violation fee before being granted additional city services.

Location of the cameras was a problem in Gulf Breeze, as it has been in other cities in Florida, because the Florida Department of Transportation will not allow the installation of the equipment on property over which it has jurisdiction. DOT considers the cameras only a "traffic enforcement device," and only "traffic control devices" may occupy DOT-controlled property. Paulding said that Gulf Breeze obtained easements from abutting property owners so that the cameras could be properly placed.

Traffipax installed the equipment at no cost to the city, as it has said it would do in Williston. The company's income derives from a portion of each fine. Paulding said that, in Gulf Breeze, the company's share is about 35 to 45 percent on a sliding scale, depending on volume.

Overall, Paulding says, the city is highly satisfied with the system. He noted that crashes in the city have decreased by 17 percent since the institution of the recommendations of the traffic safety committee. He credits the Traffipax system with some of that relief, based on behavior observed by his officers.

Anecdotally, he said that the most flagrant violation was a vehicle that ran the light at 73 mph in the 35-mph zone. He also said that many of the violations were caused by "platooning," when multiple drivers improperly follow a vehicle that is legally in the intersection.

Paulding also noted that Apopka is about to install a system, and that he believes that the city of Miami has signed on as well. Gulf Breeze may also consider installations at additional intersections.

There are outstanding questions about the legality of cameras to enforce red-light laws. Shortly after the Traffipax presentation, Williston city attorney Norm Fugate wrote to City Council members that "it is my opinion that under current Florida law, local ordinance enforcement of red light violations by use of a camera is not legal in the State of Florida."

He cited a 2005 letter to the city of Pembroke Pines from then-Attorney General Charlie Crist: "... this office continues to be of the opinion expressed in Attorney General Opinion 97-06 that legislative changes are necessary before local governments may issue traffic citations and penalize drivers who fail to obey red light indications on traffic signal devices." Fugate noted as well that legislation changing the traffic code to allow the devices had failed during the 2007 legislative session.

More recently, Fugate sent the text of proposed House Bill 351 for the 2008 session and a companion bill in the Senate (SB 816). The Mark Wandall bill would specifically authorize the use of cameras by counties and municipalities to enforce traffic laws. Wandall was killed in October 2003 in his 31st year by a negligent driver who ran a red light.

The bill to be considered by the Legislature mandates a $125 fine, and specifies that signage must be provided indicating the use of surveillance cameras. There are many other specific provisions but, as Fugate notes, passage of the bill would remove any legal impediment to the use of the cameras.

This matter is sure to be on the City Council's agenda in the near future. Interested citizens may access that agenda on the city's Web site (www.willistonfl.com) beginning on the Friday before each council meeting, or pick up a printed copy at City Hall. Public participation is encouraged.