June 13th, 2008 12:12 PM by Sherry Lee
By STACEY SINGER
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 08, 2008
When Palm Beach County commissioners voted unanimously to install red-light cameras at busy intersections last month, they insisted the program was about saving lives, not raising money.
But a close look at the cash likely to be raised from such cameras shows motorists are about to start writing checks worth millions of dollars a year at a time when local governments are looking for money to make up for voter-mandated property tax cuts.If each red-light camera catches 30 violators a day - an estimate county engineers think may be too low - cameras at 10 intersections would produce fines worth about $13.7 million a year.
If 30 cameras go up countywide, as county engineers now think likely, the county would issue fines worth $41 million annually, assuming each camera catches 30 violations daily.
Who will collect the fines? Not the county. Private companies are promising commissioners that for no public investment, they will install the cameras, maintain them, match plates against motor vehicle records, mail out violations and collect the fines.
The catch? The companies get to keep a percentage of each fine collected - one company has proposed a 50-50 split. The county's share will be deposited into a special account, to be spent at commissioners' discretion.
Bounty hunting for red-light runners is a big - and growing - business. In 1997, there were about 30 red-light camera programs nationwide. Today, companies report providing services to more than 1,000 communities.
Florida's longtime resistance has ebbed as a budget crunch chokes the state. Communities including Pembroke Pines, Jacksonville, Aventura, Apopka, Palm Coast and Port Richey are adding cameras, after discovering that they could cast the infractions as code enforcement violations rather than traffic tickets, thus avoiding state oversight.
County Engineer George Webb said the fine here has been set at a stiff $125 per violation for deterrence purposes, after Palm Beach County looked at other communities' fines.
In Dallas, red-light cameras churn out $75 citations, while red-light violations in Los Angeles County cost $381.
Several other Florida cities have set fines at $125 as code violations rather than traffic tickets.
That's because the Florida Legislature has repeatedly refused to authorize red-light camera systems, citing privacy concerns.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson, a supporter of red-light cameras, says that for the public, the privacy concern has long since evaporated.
"There are cameras at the turnpike tollbooths, so I think that objection has faded," Aaronson said. "The opposition to this is very small. It's the vociferous minority against the silent majority."
National Motorists Association activist Greg Mauz is among that "vociferous minority." Mauz asserts that companies and cities are using technological tricks to turn their cameras into cash machines.
They do this by shortening yellow lights so that it's hard to stop, triggering violations a fraction of a second into the light change, and fining drivers for slowly rolling right-hand turns on red, he said.
Meanwhile, the safety evidence for the cameras is mixed. Although broadside crashes tend to drop once cameras are in place, rear-end crashes rise as motorists hit the brakes to avoid a fine.
"What if there's a big truck behind you? What if the road is wet?" Mauz said. "There are about 20 different studies that show these cameras increase crashes, and the only studies that show they prevent crashes and save lives are done by the companies that make money off of the cameras."
The companies argue otherwise, and a parade of lobbyists and company representatives has been making the rounds at county government buildings, repeating the "save lives" refrain.
One firm hired former state Rep. Sharon Merchant, R-Palm Beach Gardens. She promised that the county could avoid any upfront expenses if it agreed to split fines 50-50 with her client, RedSpeed, based in Lombard, Ill.
She brought sample bid language to help the county craft its bid request in a way that would be advantageous to her client, public records show.
Another firm, Traffipax, brought along Palm Beach County sheriff's Capt. William Patrick Kenny, the traffic division commander, to pitch its system.
Lobbyist Hugo Unruh had been the first to raise the issue with commissioners, representing two firms that set up a test camera at St. Andrews Boulevard and Glades Road in 1999, not far from the site of a red-light crash on Yamato Road that left six people dead that year.
Today, Unruh isn't returning calls on the issue.
Unruh is under federal scrutiny for his role in deals that have landed two former commissioners in prison.
Meanwhile, the Boca Raton-based red-light camera firms he represented, Cam Film Works and Le Marquis International, are in disarray, as their president serves time in a federal prison in Miami for double billing New York City in the 1990s.
Another firm pushing for Palm Beach County's business, ATS, lost its contract with Lubbock, Texas, after city officials found that add-on charges for service and installation wiped out revenues in the first six months of operation.
Meanwhile, they saw a spike in rear-end crashes.
Though the private firms employ slightly different systems, most work in a similar way.
The system is activated when the signal turns red.
Sensors detect if a car moves forward at the stop line, and then an elevated camera snaps a picture, and generally shoots video, of the car from behind. The picture is blown up to reveal the license plate.
A central processing unit estimates when the car will reach the middle of the intersection, so the camera can snap a second photo, to prove the violation. Important details such as date, time and location are stamped onto the images, which are then forwarded to the camera company.
There, an employee looks at the image and checks the plate number against motor vehicle records, ensuring make and model match. The information then goes to a local reviewer, usually a law enforcement officer, who confirms the violation.
The company mails the notice of violation to the vehicle owner, who has 30 days to pay or appeal.
Precisely which Palm Beach County intersections will get the cameras hasn't been decided. County traffic engineers say they're studying crash statistics, consulting with camera providers and writing guidelines for the firms bidding for the business.
When commissioners voted on the issue last month, they were told that nine intersections could qualify for the cameras. But after discussions with camera firms, Dan Weisberg, director of the county's traffic department, said he believes more intersections will be eligible. That's because at intersections where state and county roads cross, the cameras can be deployed on the county side alone, he said.
And the number of camera-monitored intersections could grow even faster if cities decide to opt into the county's program.
Weisberg said Palm Beach County's ordinance will avoid the so-called tricks that Mauz cites as abusive.
The county will not shorten its yellow lights to ensnare motorists, he said, and the violations won't be triggered until a half-second after the light turns from yellow to red.
Some cities' violations are triggered one-tenth of a second into a red light.
Also, at the insistence of Commissioner Bob Kanjian, Palm Beach County's red-light cameras won't be set up to issue violations for motorists making rolling right turns on red.
A recent Los Angeles Times study found that about 80 percent of tickets issued in Southern California were for rolling right turns on red.
"This is supposed to be a system to catch the egregious violators," Kanjian said. "Otherwise, it would appear to me to be a money grab."
Weisberg said it will likely take about six months for the bidding process to be finished.
After that, there will be a warning phase, when violators will be sent pictures of themselves running lights, without fines.
Despite what the skeptics say, Aaronson believes the camera installations will save lives.
"We don't deny that there can be more rear-end collisions, more fender benders," Aaronson said. "But as far as fatalities? I've read reports from all over the world that show that red-light cameras save lives."
Palm Beach County is studying crash data before selecting where to put its 10 to 30 red-light cameras. Here are the 30 intersections with the most annual crashes, according to county statistics:
1. Forest Hill Boulevard and Military Trail, 135
2. Okeechobee Boulevard and Military Trail, 119
3. Forest Hill Boulevard and State Road 7, 108
4. Lake Worth Road and Jog Road, 98
5. Southern Boulevard and State Road 7, 90
6. Forest Hill Boulevard and Jog Road, 92
7. Glades Road and State Road 7, 90
8. Okeechobee Boulevard and Haverhill Road, 89
9. Okeechobee Boulevard and Jog Road, 88
10. Lake Worth Road and Congress Avenue, 84
11. Gateway Boulevard and Congress Avenue, 80
12. Okeechobee Boulevard and I-95, 79
13. PGA Boulevard and Military Trail, 77
14. Southern Boulevard and Jog Road, 77
15. Boynton Beach Blvd. and Military Trail, 75
16. Lake Worth Road and State Road 7, 74
17. Belvedere Road and Military Trail, 73
18. Blue Heron Boulevard and Military Trail, 73
19. Glades Road and N.W. 15 Ave./Airport Rd., 73
20. Lake Worth Road and Military Trail, 70
21. Old Boynton Road and Congress Avenue, 70
22. Okeechobee Boulevard and State Road 7, 68
23. Blue Heron Blvd. and Old Dixie Highway, 66
24. W. Atlantic Avenue and Congress Avenue, 65
25. W. Atlantic Avenue and Military Trail, 65
26. Boynton Beach Blvd. and Congress Ave., 63
27. Lake Worth Road and Haverhill Road, 62
28. Palmetto Park Road and Powerline Road, 62
29. Southern Boulevard and Military Trail, 62
30. 10th Avenue North and Military Trail, 61
Palm Beach County's new red-light camera ordinance allows for appeals. But losing adds a $25 hearing fee to the $125 fine. Here are the acceptable grounds for an appeal:
1. 'I wasn't driving the car, and the person who was driving didn't have my permission to take the car.'
2. 'A police officer already gave me a traffic ticket for the same thing.'
3. 'If I hadn't gone through the light, I would have broken a law against (fill in the blank).'
4. 'If I hadn't gone through the light, I would have hit something or someone else, or I would have been hit.'
5. 'The traffic signal was malfunctioning.'
Source: Palm Beach County
Comment from Broker Sherry Lee -
Prepare to be grabbed by the ankles, turned upside down and shaken until every last penny falls out of your pocket.