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A Florida City Debates the Return of Red-Light Cameras

After suspending its red-light program, the city of Bradenton is weighing the merits of rebooting its program.

(TNS) Florida's Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan has concluded an intersection study and will present her findings to the city council by the first of the year as officials prepare to renew the red-light camera debate.

The city shut down the program in August 2016, but the decision had more to do with vendor issues and the intersections chosen when the city initiated the program in 2010. Bevan’s study will reveal the city’s most dangerous intersections according to actual crash data, rather than financial opportunities that the council felt was the previous vendor’s motives. Though Manatee County briefly debated doing the same, 10 county intersections currently have active red-light cameras.

In Bradenton alone, the cameras generated $5.5 million, but the city only netted $270,000, with the remaining funds going to the state and to the vendor. It’s an argument in which Ward 4 Councilman Bemis Smith has remained consistent. That’s a lot of money that was being taken out of the community, Smith said, and it was coming out of the pockets of taxpayers.

“I believe I’ve had the same arguments all along,” Smith said. “We had these cameras for a long time and I never saw a significant improvement in accidents or a reduction in death, which there haven’t been a lot. I’m just going to take the position that these cameras can hurt people, too. One can argue they save lives, but there is no definitive evidence in Bradenton that that’s true.”

Smith points to residents who may be struggling to make ends meet who incur a hefty $150 fine for a one-second or less infraction. About 80 percent of violations cited from the city cameras show less than a one-second infraction. Smith supports new sensor technology that delays the opposing lights at an intersection for a second or two if a vehicle is sensed within the intersection at the time of a light change.

Miami has become the latest city to end the red-light camera program. The city commission voted unanimously Thursday to turn the cameras off early next year. Melissa Wandall, president of the National Coalition for Safer Roads, called it irresponsible. Wandall, a Manatee County activist who championed the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act after her husband was killed by a red-light runner, contends Miami had strong evidence that the cameras were working.

“It’s so negligent,” Wandall told the Bradenton Herald. “Their cameras are working. They have 7 out of 10 people receiving violations who are not residents of Miami so those politicians are not protecting their own, which is what they were put in place to do. And another 80 percent of the violators never did it again.”

Wandall said she hopes Bradenton officials will act differently.

“We are not protecting our own citizens by not affording law enforcement to utilize a tool that simply acts as a safety net,” she said. “It’s one more thing that reduces the risk of someone being seriously injured or killed due to a red-light runner. It’s a combination of tools. I’m not saying red-light cameras are doing everything. We are saying you take enforcement, education and advocacy and combine it with automated enforcement. Then you have a force that is going to save lives and prevent heartache and tragedy on our roadways.”

Smith agrees that his primary responsibility is to protect citizens, but said there are other ways to accomplish that goal.

“My vision is to protect people, but not do something just because we can,” he said. “I don’t go along with the argument that, ‘If it saves one life.’ It’s hard to identify that as truth. I want safety as much as anyone else, but don’t want a system that does nothing but takes money out of people’s pockets to hand over to the government. There are things I would consider at specific intersections, which are the sensors.”

Like Wandall, Ward 2 Councilman Gene Brown has had a personal experience, losing two friends to red-light runners. He has continued to nudge the council to move this debate forward. A staunch supporter of the red-light cameras, Brown also agrees with Wandall that it should be a combined approach by using all resources and technology available.

“My whole thing has always been about safety,” Brown said. “But I’ve always argued that if you break the law, shouldn’t there be a punishment? Whether it’s a millisecond or three seconds, if you hit someone and injure or kill them, they are still injured or dead. I had a friend who got a ticket and was complaining that he didn’t run the light. I told him to watch the video and didn’t hear back from him. When I ran into him and asked him, he said, ‘I ran it and I paid it.’ Who are the people complaining the most? The ones who ran the light and got a ticket.”

Brown said he isn’t for government intrusion and doesn’t agree with the way red-light cameras have been handled in the past. But he said there is enough new technology available to make a difference.

“I’m ready for this to go forward,” he said. “In my opinion, we need to be going to the next step.”

©2017 The Bradenton Herald (Bradenton, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.