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Monday, March 16, 2009
Orlando Goes Green for Red-Light Cameras
Get ready to smile for the camera, and pay a fine, if you're going to run a red light in Orlando.
Orlando is Florida's largest city to employ automated cameras to photograph and ticket drivers who don't obey red lights.
After being briefed on the concept recently, City Council members gave their unanimous support. Mayor Buddy Dyer, with the council's backing, said he would ready a plan for formal approval in the next few months, and hopes on having the cameras in effect by the end of the year.
With these developments, Orlando is sidestepping Florida lawmakers who have failed for years to embrace statewide red-light legislation.
Commissioner Patty Sheehan said. "That the Legislature will not act is unfathomable to me. The Legislature won't cooperate, so let's do it ourselves."
The details of the plan have yet to be worked out. The cameras cost $40,000 to $60,000 each or can be leased for approximately $5,000 a month, but city officials have not yet fully calculated the cost. They are holding off on decisions such as how many intersections would be covered by cameras and the amount of the fine.
The cameras appraise a vehicle's speed as it nears an intersection and takes a photo of the car and its license plate if it crosses the intersection after the light has turned red. The Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority employs a similar system to photograph tollbooth violators.
A police officer will review the photographs, and then determine whether a ticket should be mailed.
According to city officials, the problem can no longer be ignored. Police Chief Michael McCoy said that in Florida, red-light violators cause at least 100 fatalities and more than 6,300 injuries a year. At least 458 crashes resulted from red light running last year in Orlando alone.
In 2005, the city tested the cameras' effectiveness in a pilot project at a major intersection. Over 7,500 violations were photographed in nine months, with warning letters being issued to 2,946 violators. To spot that many red-light violations, it would take 20 motorcycle cops a full year.
"Traffic enforcement is a very labor-intensive part of our Police Department," Dyer said. "Red-light cameras would certainly be a way to make it more efficient."
McCoy added that crashes at the test intersection shrunk by half, and violations dropped by 43 percent.
"We sent out thousands of warning letters and had absolutely no complaints from the public," he said. "I think the public is strongly behind this. It's overdue."
State laws do not address red-light cameras, but it is the state attorney general's opinion that the photos cannot be the basis of a traffic citation.
Municipal leaders have urged lawmakers to specifically permit the use of red-light cameras for a decade, to no avail. Lawmakers most often cite privacy issues in blocking the cameras' use.
According to city lawyers, Orlando could issue a ticket that's akin to a parking or code-enforcement infraction. This would result in a monetary fine, but no points on the violator's license, no jail time and no seizure of property.
The city of Gulf Breeze has been employing a similar process for a year, and just this month Apopka began issuing $125 fines.
There's a small chance that the city's action could be found unconstitutional, said City Attorney Mayanne Downs.
"We just need to send a message," Commissioner Phil Diamond said, "and hopefully people will start driving more carefully."
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