Who makes the call on red light violations?

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Oh, the turmoil and chatter on red light cameras continues.  I still don’t know where I fall on whether I like them or not.  Red light cameras stir emotions on all sides of the argument. In fact, there have been lawsuits in South Florida which contest red light camera citations, arguing that police officers don’t make the decisions, instead, third-party monitoring services do. Last October, the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeals agreed, upholding a local ban on automated, caught-on-camera tickets.  The ruling said, “In Florida, only law enforcement officers have the legal authority to issue citation for traffic infractions, which means only law enforcement officers and traffic enforcement officers are entitled to determine who gets prosecuted for a red light violation.”  With this decision, cities started to stop issuing tickets through the automatic red-light cameras.  Then Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal on Jan. 30 refused to rehear the October ruling that found the city of Hollywood could not delegate ticket-writing duties to a third-party vendor, such as American Traffic Solutions, which has a contract with many cities. As of now, Hollywood, Boca Raton and Palm Beach County have decided to suspend the red light traffic cameras.

Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office must be watching what has been going on in south Florida so they recently granted News4Jax a look into how every single red-light incident is processed.  Here in Jacksonville, JSO officers do go through every red light incident.  The reporters for News4Jax were allowed into the room to observe how that vetting process works.  They looked at several photos and videos that seem to speak for themselves.  The vehicle going is 22 miles per hour, the light’s been red for 1.2 seconds, northbound on Southside Boulevard,” Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford told them, pointing at the video they watched together over the shoulder of an officer. Video after video shows scenes from the red light camera intersections around the city. Formally, that vetting room is called the Traffic Infraction Enforcement Unit, and it’s been off-limits to reporters until now. Three officers working at the time we visited, all reviewing photos and videos of red light intersection infractions submitted by the Redflex Company, the business operating the cameras. Not all the incidents flowing through the Redflex system will turn into Notices of Violation, but several they looked at show why officers approve the next step of the enforcement process.  And JSO wants to make it clear: real people, real police officers, make the call on what’s a violation, and what isn’t.  The reporter asked the Sheriff, “So police officers, do they make their decisions based on same factors they would out on the street, watching from a cruiser, right in front of them, rather than on a video screen?”  “Absolutely. Go through same process. Actually though, it’s easier with the Redflex system to determine whether somebody ran a red light or not,” Rutherford said.  “I can freeze it at a certain point, and see: the light’s red, the wheels are behind the intersection, the entrance to the intersection so I know that’s a violation.”  Not everyone who formally runs a red light gets a notice of violation. For instance, no notice goes out to people who turn right on red. Rutherford says there’s also a degree of forgiveness offered – based on a judgment call.

Does red light camera monitoring save lives? Rutherford says all the evidence on collisions isn’t in – but he looks at a sharp decline in violations at the first 18 approaches that went “live” in Jacksonville – dropping from more than 3200 to fewer than a thousand.  “How anybody could look at that and not say that those intersections are safer with two-thousand fewer violations – CLEARLY it’s safer! It HAS to be, because you have two-thousand fewer violations taking place. And that’s a direct result of that camera being there and changing folks behavior.”

News4Jax asked Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for the stats – the numbers in November 2014 with 40 approaches monitored by red light cameras.

  • 4,921 total incidents processed through the unit.
  • 2,622 were not approved for a notice of violation.
  • 2,299 notices were issued. Of these, we’re told 271 became what are known as UTC’s, uniform traffic citations.  This is when a driver does not respond to the mailed notice of violation.  It could mean something as simple as the wrong address or the driver may have chosen to ignore it.

The fine if you run a red light is $158. So how does that add up?  JSO says for example from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014:

Red light camera revenue earned $575,161.00
Amount due to the city of Jacksonville   $32,210.82
Total revenue from red-light tickets  $607,371.82  
Amount of revenue paid to state of Florida  ( 26,214.83)  
Amount of revenue paid to Redflex (camera vendor)  (310,275.80)  
Net revenue to city of Jacksonville general revenue fund  $260,881.19  

What’s next for red light cameras in Jacksonville, since it seems the legal challenges in other parts of the state can’t make the same complaint about the system here? Since real officers make the decisions, the legal challenge in Hollywood, Fla.  doesn’t seem viable here. Rutherford continues working to launch the HALO system with the red light cameras. Technology would measure the likelihood of an approaching car to enter an intersection within three seconds of the light turning red in that direction. The HALO system would HOLD the red light in the other direction, hopefully creating an opportunity for the red light runner to clear the intersection without a crash happening.

Once an officer decides to send the Notice of Violation, how much time to drivers have to fight back, or pay up? JSO allows 60 days and the options are pay the fine, request a hearing, OR nominate another driver. That only happens once, by the way. To nominate another driver, the car’s registered owner signs an affidavit – swearing what the say is true.

So, it looks like red light cameras aren’t going anywhere anytime soon here in Jacksonville.  Regardless, be aware, slow down and be safe.

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