Camera tracks red-light runners
Starting today, police will send warnings to violators spotted at an Orlando intersection.
Sentinel Staff Writer
January 19, 2006
If you open your mail and see a picture of your car speeding through a red light, consider yourself warned -- courtesy of the Orlando Police Department.
Don't worry. It won't cost you money. Not yet, at least.
But the warning letter and accompanying photos are the next step in OPD's campaign to reduce the number of red-light runners. A camera installed at the intersection of Hiawassee Road and Raleigh Street in November already has documented 600 red-light runners in less than two months.
Starting today, those caught running the light at that intersection will get the warning letter telling them to be more careful.
"Our goal is not to raise profits. Our goal is not to raise money," Orlando police Chief Michael McCoy said. "Our goal is to raise awareness."
McCoy said he hopes the camera, warning letters and publicity will change dangerous habits the same way campaigns against smoking changed behavior without fines or penalties.
It works this way: If a car enters the intersection after the light turns red, the camera mounted above the roadway takes a picture of the car and its license plate. It even works at night, thanks to a powerful flash. The photos typically don't show faces of drivers or occupants.
The tag number is then traced to an owner, and a letter is sent to the owner's residence.
To get a warning letter, a driver must have passed the stop line on the roadway after the light turns red and be traveling 30 mph or more.
Those entering the intersection when the light is yellow will not get a warning letter even if the light turns red before they pass through it completely.
McCoy thinks the letters may alert more than just the drivers.
He says parents and business owners may learn that their cars are being driven recklessly by members of their household or employees.
The camera is the only one being used by OPD. There are others scattered around the state. The cameras are used in about a dozen states, but are only now beginning to catch on in Florida.
Police in a few other jurisdictions -- Sarasota and Manatee counties -- have also begun letter campaigns similar to OPD's. Running a red light can bring a hefty fine -- $180.50 in Orange County -- but only if a law-enforcement officer witnesses the infraction. When the camera is the only witness, the story is different. Many jurisdictions are hesitant to use the cameras to impose financial fines because state law does not specifically allow it.
A 2005 opinion by the state attorney general says cities cannot use the cameras to issue traffic tickets.
But that may not stop some police from trying to go the next step. Orlando police haven't said whether tickets might be around the corner.
But the community of Gulf Breeze in the Panhandle has passed an ordinance to let the city collect fines through photographic evidence collected by the automatic cameras. The community in Santa Rosa County cites several statistics in defending its 2005 regulation, including:
In 2003, there were 8,900 crashes in Florida caused by drivers running red lights. Those collisions killed 115 people, injured 13,000 and caused $77 million in damage.
In 2004, 332,994 citations were issued in Florida against red-light runners.
Some Orlando drivers agree that their fellow motorists are getting more aggressive at intersections.
"I tell people who move here to wait a second after their light turns green," said Dominick Abitino, who lives in Orlando.
"I've done it before and I'm not proud of that," Abitino said of rushing through intersections when the light turned red. But he said it worries him now.
"It almost happened to me an hour ago at Colonial and I-4. A huge SUV was barreling through. I stop and look now even when the light is green."
OPD Lt. Ed Boyens said that intersection crashes are particularly dangerous because they usually involve one car slamming into the side of another car at a right angle.
Most vehicles provide little protection from side crashes.
OPD picked the Hiawassee and Raleigh intersection for the red-light camera because it has a high volume of traffic and a fairly high number of crashes -- 32 in 2004, said Sheryl Bradley, head of the Orange County Community Traffic Safety Team.
OPD would like to install a second camera at the intersection of Kirkman and Conroy roads but has run into opposition from the state Department of Transportation. The DOT has jurisdiction over Kirkman, which is a state road.
The frustration of driving in a growing city with ever more crowded roads makes it difficult for some drivers to wait at the yellow.
"They have too many red lights," said Joshua Gonzalez of DeBary, who complains that getting caught at red lights causes too many delays.
"Yellow," he said "means go."