December 06, 2006

Palm Coast eyes cameras to catch red-light runners
Staff Writer

PALM COAST -- Perpetual red-light runners may soon want to think twice before gunning through an intersection in Palm Coast.

City Council members approved an ordinance Tuesday that would allow for the installation of an unmanned camera next year to capture images of the license plates of motorists who run red lights. No location has yet been determined.

Violators would be slapped with a $125 civil fine from the city's code enforcement department.

The council approved the first reading of the ordinance in a 4-1 vote.

Councilwoman Mary DiStefano cast the opposing ballot, saying she needed more information about costs and Palm Coast traffic accident statistics before she could fully support the ordinance.

But Jon Netts, who was elected as the council's vice mayor at Tuesday's meeting, supported the use of cameras, saying they would help prevent deadly "T-bone" accidents that often occur when motorists run red lights.

Palm Coast joins only a few Florida communities that have found a way to skirt a state law that prohibits cities from using cameras to issue traffic citations to red-light runners.

The city of Gulf Breeze, in the Pensacola Bay area, issued about 129 code violations in October 2006 alone using its camera, which was installed last year, Gulf Breeze Police Officer Kevin Jenks said.

Pembroke Pines and Delray Beach are other cities also considering installing red light cameras.

According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, drivers' disregard of traffic signals killed 96 and injured 6,300 in 2005 statewide.

Advocates say the cameras could reduce the number of red light-related crashes.

Critics say using cameras may reduce certain types of crashes, but increases others -- and they are primarily used to generate revenue.

Attorney General and Governor-elect Charlie Crist issued an opinion on the matter last year that emphasized the law, but stated unmanned cameras can be used to issue warnings.

The state Legislature has refused to adopt a law allowing cities to use unmanned cameras to issue traffic citations, but does allow their use on state toll roads.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Web site, in 2004 more than 900 people were killed and an estimated 168,000 were injured in crashes that involved red-light running nationally.

The Wisconsin-based National Motorists Association, which opposes the use of red light cameras, says better synchronization of traffic lights and improved intersection engineering is the key to reducing red-light accidents.

In a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon, Jim Baxter, the association's president, said independent research shows that although red-light cameras may reduce the number of "T-bone" accidents, the number of rear-end crashes jumps.

"You still end up with lots of accidents," he said. "The city collects a lot of money but sees little in the way of (accident reduction)."

Instead of cameras, cities should consider longer yellow lights, Baxter said.

At Tuesday's meeting, Councilman William Venne said he would support a study of the city's traffic light patterns but questioned whether any tweaking would prevent motorists from running red lights.

"I'd say I'm not convinced that engineering alone would do this," he said.