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Traffic Cameras: Money Pit for Some, Gold Mine for Others PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, Senior Writer   
September 2011

Despite legal and political wrangling, pioneering Aventura still rakes in the cash

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In October 2008, Aventura made history when it became the first municipality in South Florida to install red-light cameras. Now, as the third anniversary of Aventura’s “Intersection Safety Camera Program” approaches, more than 65 Florida cities have red-light cameras.

That trend disturbs traffic attorney Bret Lusskin. “The idea of government surveillance and cameras flashing away all night is terribly Orwellian for me,” says Lusskin, founder of the Ticket Cricket law firm.

But Eric Soroka, Aventura’s city manager, has no plans to remove the nine cameras that snap photographs at five intersections in Aventura. “People take red-lights more seriously now,” he says.

Soroka credits motorists’ newfound respect for traffic lights with a 15-percent drop in car accidents throughout the city between January 2008 and August 2010. At intersections with red-light cameras, accidents fell by as much as 60 percent during that period, according to statistics provided by the Aventura Police Department.

Aventura’s traffic education comes at a cost -- to drivers. As of last month, more than 62,368 tickets had been issued. Between September 2009 and July 2011, Aventura collected nearly $3 million in fines. About $100,000 per year in red-light ticket fines are funneled to Aventura’s charter school, with the rest of the money going to the city’s general fund.

But the cameras aren’t there just to make money for Aventura, Soroka insists. “The intended purpose is to improve safety at intersections,” he says, adding that the fines are a tiny portion of Aventura’s $47 million annual budget.

Lusskin argues that red-light cameras are not about safety, but revenue, especially for American Traffic Solutions (ATS), an Arizona-based company that operates traffic-camera systems in 300 municipalities across North America. Lusskin claims ATS enticed Florida cities with promises of easy funds through traffic tickets just as the state sank into a recession. “The whole background on it is quite nefarious,” he says. “They [ATS] waited for the opportunity when all municipalities were strapped for cash in 2007.” As a result, ATS is Florida’s largest provider of red-light cameras, a fact that has Lusskin fuming: “They really are an evil company.”

But ATS did not take the initiative to approach Aventura.

Aventura City Commissioner Bob Diamond says his wife was almost killed in a car accident at an Aventura intersection caused by a motorist who ran a red light. After reading that car accidents were slashed by half in New York following the installation of cameras, Diamond contacted ATS and other traffic-camera companies. “My only interest,” he recalls, “was saving lives.”

ATS spokesman Charlie Territo asserts that his company is making Florida safer even as it complicates the work of traffic attorneys. “In South Florida, 97 percent of the violations issued are eventually found guilty,” he says. Territo claims an even more impressive record in Aventura. Of the 19,325 tickets issued from July 2010 to May 2011, only 330 were found not guilty, he reports. “These violations come with video and pictures of the violations, irrefutable evidence that the driver of the vehicle has broken the law,” he says.

Except that it’s not the driver of the vehicle who is ticketed. It’s the owner. That is because red-light cameras photograph the license plate of a vehicle, which then mails the ticket to the owner or lessee. “Technically speaking, you’re not violating the law by running a red light. It is the registered vehicle,” Lusskin maintains. He also claims that 90 percent of camera tickets go to vehicles that fail to make a full stop before turning right on a red light.

Tickets for right turns on a red light are given only to vehicles traveling in excess of ten miles per hour, Territo insists. He adds that car owners can contest a charge by providing the name and address of the driver at the time of the infraction.

Commissioner Diamond contends the subject of revenue rarely came up during his five-year quest to get red-light cameras in Aventura. Interpretations of the law, however, were a constant sticking point. In 2006 he asked state Sen. Gwen Margolis to introduce a red-light camera bill in the Florida legislature. “A year and a half later, she told me: ‘I can’t get it through. There are right-of-privacy concerns,’” he recounts. That answer frustrated Diamond, a former judge: “There is no right of privacy when you are driving a car!”

While Margolis tried again, Aventura officials installed their cameras and took a cue from Gulf Breeze, Florida, issuing tickets not as traffic violations but as code infractions. Automobile owners wishing to contest the tickets had to appear before a city-paid special master. From January to July of 2009, Aventura issued 15,875 code violations with fines ranging from $125 to $500.

Though the state had yet to legalize red-light cameras, at least 11 other Miami-Dade County municipalities, including Miami Shores, North Bay Village, and North Miami, followed in Aventura’s footsteps and installed ATS cameras.

That chapter ended in February 2010, after Lusskin sued Aventura on behalf of Richard Masone, a Hallandale Beach resident cited twice for turning right at a red light without making a full stop. Lusskin argued that state law only allowed sworn police officers to issue red-light tickets. Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Jerald Bagley agreed.

Five months later, the state legislature finally passed a red-light bill, called the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act, thanks in part to a $1.5 million lobbying effort by ATS. (The law was named after a Bradenton resident who died in a car crash caused by a red-light runner in 2003.) Under the new law, red-light camera tickets start at $158. After 30 days, fines increase to $277 each. Traffic judges, not special masters, now decide the fate of contested tickets. Cities, however, only collect between $45 and $75 for each ticket; the rest of the funds flow into the state’s coffers.

With a cut as high as 53 percent going to the state, red-light cameras are bringing in less money for municipalities. The City of Miami installed ATS red-light cameras last year in hopes of collecting $8 million from tickets. Instead Miami received less than $3 million.

Under the new state law, cities are also required to pay a fee, not a percentage, to red-light-camera companies. In Aventura’s case, that fee amounts to $4750 per month for each camera covering four lanes of traffic, unless the camera costs exceed the fines collected from a camera.

Even with ATS’s fees as high as $513,000 a year, Aventura still manages to make a profit. From September 2010 to July 2011, the city collected $867,126 from red-light cameras. That figure, however, pales in comparison to the $2 million in fines Aventura collected earlier, between September 2009 and August 2010.

Territo attributes the revenue decline to compliance. In Aventura, he says, there has been a 49-percent reduction in red-light-running between 2008 and 2010, adding that 89 percent of those violators live outside Aventura.

Still, red-light cameras continue to cause legal chaos throughout Florida, says Ted Hollander, an attorney with the Ticket Clinic law firm. Broward Judge Fred Breman, for example, ruled that police officers couldn’t legally issue red-light tickets if cameras are also doing so. “The interpretation in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties depends on what judge or magistrate you get,” says Hollander, whose argument that red-light cameras are unconstitutional was recently rejected by a Broward court.

Hollander also claims there’s no clear-cut evidence that red-light cameras prevent accidents. Instead they may actually cause more accidents. He points out that a 2008 study from the University of South Florida warns that rear-end collisions increase in places with red-light cameras because some drivers slam their breaks when approaching intersections.

But Karen Morgan, manager of public policy for AAA Auto Club South, says evidence shows red-light cameras do improve roadway safety. According to a June 2011 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, cities that installed red-light cameras saw injury-related crashes decline by up to 29 percent.

Nevertheless, AAA urged then-Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the red-light camera bill, fearing the law was more about revenue than safety. “AAA is supportive of the use of red-light cameras, but not without certain safeguards,” Morgan says. Among the safeguards spelled out in a May 2010 letter to Crist is a requirement that all ticket money be used for public-safety purposes.

With the law already passed in the legislature, though, Morgan says AAA is now working to improve it: “We would rather work with the legislature and put safeguards in it -- but not get rid of it.”

Many U.S. communities are opting to get rid of cameras. According to an Associated Press report last month, more than a dozen cities and nine states outright ban the use of red-light cameras. This past May, Florida’s House of Representatives approved a bill revoking the Wandall Act. The measure failed to pass the state Senate.

Cities all over Florida are finding out that red-light cameras are more money pits than gold mines, attorney Hollander says. Hialeah, Davie, Fort Lauderdale, and Pembroke Pines are just a few of the South Florida municipalities planning to ditch red-light cameras because they cost more than they generate. “If it’s all about safety, why are these cities pulling the plug when there is no money?” Hollander asks.

Charlie Territo of ATS argues that more and more cities are seeking out red-light cameras. “This is an industry that has seen tremendous growth over the last five years,” he explains. “As the benefits of the programs become more well known, we expect legal challenges to become fewer and fewer, and we expect support for cameras to increase.”

 

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