Melbourne violations plummet 89%, study claims


Watching you. Drivers stop at the intersection of Hibiscus and Airport boulevards in Melbourne which has been watched by cameras since fall 2005. Michael R. Brown, FLORIDA TODAY

MELBOURNE - If you ran the westbound red light at Hibiscus and Airport boulevards earlier this year, you unwittingly bolstered a campaign to legalize traffic-camera ticketing across Florida.

Peek Traffic installed the camera late last fall free of charge, then began filming -- and counting -- drivers who disobeyed red lights. There are signs at the intersection reading, "Red Light Photo Test Site."

Behind the scenes, the Palmetto corporation began compiling a database of statistics from traffic devices in Melbourne, Orlando, Sarasota County and Manatee County.

The result? A 50-page "pilot study" touting the cameras' effectiveness, packed with colorful graphs and charts, was issued in late July. Copies of the study will be distributed to members of Florida's House and Senate this fall for the upcoming legislative session, spokeswoman Lori Mellman said.

The company's goal is to change the law to legalize unmanned-camera traffic ticketing across Florida. The practice is illegal today, and recent attempts to bring in cameras fizzled in Tallahassee.

Dramatic decrease

Peek Traffic's cameras recorded violations from mid-December through June 1 at the Hibiscus and Airport intersection in Melbourne and the other locations in the state. City police mailed warning letters to drivers who ran the signal.

Results were dramatic. The company reported red-light violations at the Melbourne intersection plummeted 89 percent, from 21 per day to 2.4 per day.

Similarly, violations dropped 74 percent in Orlando, 96 percent in Manatee County, and 86 percent and 81 percent at the locations of two cameras in Sarasota County.

Florida cities and counties cannot ticket drivers for camera-based traffic violations. In a July 2005 opinion, Attorney General Charlie Crist, the Republican candidate for governor, ruled that a law enforcement officer must personally observe an infraction before a citation can be issued.

All about the money?

Brevard County Clerk of Courts Scott Ellis likens the "robot policeman" program to "sheer thievery." He denounced the camera and Peek Traffic's lobbying effort.

"The purpose of setting up those cameras is to take money from the public. Here they are, lobbying the legislature for the ability to make money off of it," Ellis said. "It's really a money issue. To me, the whole thing's a crock. It's clearly there for the revenue."

A handful of Florida cities are using cameras to levy civil fines against red-light runners -- in other words, they charge cash penalties instead of penalizing driver's license points. These communities include Gulf Breeze, a city of about 6,500 people near Pensacola, and Pembroke Pines, a Broward County city of 150,000-plus residents.

Gulf Breeze charges violators $100. Last October, Pembroke Pines officials declared red-light running a city crime. After a six-month grace period expired, drivers were charged $125 when an unmanned camera captured the act.

Randy Bly, spokesman for Florida AAA Auto Club South, said red-light cameras would be valuable if they prevent high-speed T-bone crashes.

But he said cameras should not ticket motorists for frivolous -- or flawed -- reasons.

"How they differentiate between someone making a right turn on red, or someone not making a 1,000-percent stop at the light, I don't know," Bly said.

It could work

Melbourne Police Chief Don Carey said he is not interested in pursuing fines. Rather, he would like to use laser-equipped cameras to catch speeders in school zones.

Sgt. Sean Riordan leads Melbourne's traffic enforcement unit. He said he was satisfied with the Hibiscus-Airport camera's performance, and he will continue mailing warning letters until further notice.

"If the legislators say, 'We want to use this as a legalized form of enforcement,' I think it'll be fine because of the quality of the photos," he said.

However, Riordan mentioned a sticking point: Camera-based citations are sent to the owner of the vehicle -- not necessarily the driver who was behind the wheel.

The Palm Bay City Council rejected a free-camera overture in January from Nestor Traffic Systems, a Rhode Island manufacturer. The vote was 3-2.

Melbourne's camera is the sole survivor from the pilot study still in operation, Mellman said.

The Orlando camera was damaged in a traffic accident, and the Manatee and Sarasota cameras were taken down.