TAMPA, Fla. — As red-light cameras fuel a new debate at the State House over whether they should be banned, ABC Action News Anchor Paul LaGrone uncovered a major contractor for the controversial cameras donated millions of dollars to the campaigns for local elected officials with a big say over where and how these cameras are used.
While advocates credit the cameras for saving lives, detractors call the system a money grab and cash cow for local governments – hitting drivers with a $158 ticket for one-time mistakes.
For Elijah Alexander, the red-light camera may not have stopped the driver who hit him, but it provides proof of a growing problem.
“I’m so happy to be here... I could have died,” Alexander told ABC Action News after he was hit in a motorcycle crash.
A 2019 study by AAA found deaths caused by drivers running red lights hit a 10-year high in 2017 – an increase of 28% since 2012. Florida accounted for 10% of all fatal red-light crashes in 2017, the study shows.
But there are also new questions being raised about whether red-light cameras are effective.
Intersections with red-light cameras saw a 15% increase in crashes after the cameras were installed, according to a 2018 report by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Rear-end crashes went up by 12% after cameras were installed, while the number of red-light runners stayed the same across the state, the report shows.
Attorney Josh Burnett, with the Florida Ticket Firm, said he questions the accuracy of the cameras and told ABC Action News Anchor Paul LaGrone it’s possible for the cameras to cite the wrong driver.
“It’s the folks who are reviewing it that are getting it wrong too,” said Burnett. “There are mistakes either because of blurriness or something being illegible in the video one digit or one character out of place and a citation can be issued incorrectly.”
State lawmakers are even considering a bill that would ban red-light cameras in Florida.
Red light cameras not going away
But despite the controversy, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the cameras were legal last year, and Tampa and Clearwater just renewed contracts with red-light camera companies.
Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter said he believes red-light cameras hold drivers accountable.
“Every time they go through that intersection after paying that fine, they are going to say this is the place I got the red-light ticket,” said Slaughter, who told ABC Action News the cameras are a safer way to not only deter drivers from running red lights but also a safer way to catch red-light runners. “As an officer, if you have to go through the intersection and try to get everyone to stop that’s much more dangerous than using the video from the camera to cite the violator.”
Follow the money
Campaign finance records show American Traffic Solutions — the biggest red-light vendor in the state — has given more than $1.8 million to candidates for both political parties since 2008.
The company also contributed $500 to former Tampa City Councilors Mike Suarez and Harry Cohen and current City Councilor Charlie Miranda.
All three voted in favor of renewing the company’s contract with the city for five more years.
Suarez told ABC Action News the campaign donation had no influence on his vote and he supports the cameras, saying he believes they help keep drivers safe.
American Traffic Solutions also donated $1,000 — the maximum allowed under state law — to Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, who’s in charge of Hillsborough’s red-light camera contract.
In response to ABC Action News questions about the donation, Chronister said in an email, “We raised over one million dollars and people from all walks of life donated… and the campaign followed every Florida law in regards to campaign finance, disclosures and disclaimers.”
Tampa City Councilor Guido Maniscalco did not take money from the red-light camera company, but he doesn’t believe his colleagues are influenced by campaign contributions.
“They are honest people – all of them and I don’t think it would have made a difference,” said Maniscalco.
But Maniscalco does question the company’s motive behind those contributions, telling Anchor Paul LaGrone, “Why make contributions if this is about safety?”
ABC Action News reached out to American Traffic Solutions, but the company did not respond to a request for comment.
A new way to keep drivers safe
In Lakeland, Traffic Manager Angelo Rao is working on new technology that could neutralize the red-light camera debate.
“We have now the technology to prevent the crash,” said Rao. “We delay the green so that a crash doesn’t occur.”
Rao is testing out sensors that can detect if a driver is not going to stop in time, keeping the light red for everyone else.
“If the computer calculates a problem, it would say, ‘No, no you are going to wait two seconds. We are going to delay your green by two seconds.’ You don’t even get involved in the intersection and that’s where we save lives,” said Rao.
The sensors are also collecting data on red-light running with this disturbing result, according to Rao.
“What surprised me was at one intersection over a six-month average period, we averaged 48 – that’s 48 per day [red light runners] after the green light went on. That surprised me,” said Rao.
Lakeland is still using red-light cameras to catch runners. The sensors are still being tested and the state would need to approve them.
Meanwhile, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chronister said after reviewing the data, he thinks the cameras have become just another ticketed tax on motorists.
Chronister said his office would be reviewing the issue to determine if Hillsborough County will renew its red-light camera contract.