Palm Coast is scheduling meetings with red-light camera company ATS to review its options for trimming back or scrapping the city’s red-light camera program.
“We have been in contact with ATS, and we will set up a time to talk about that,” City Manager Jim Landon said at a City Council meeting May 6. So far, he said, the company has been “very responsive.”
Palm Coast could approach the issue of the cameras by seeking to reduce their number, cutting the length of the city’s contract with ATS, or eliminating the cameras entirely, he said.
Landon said that although the cameras do impact safety, the program has grown far beyond what the city intended when it implemented it, largely because of state interference with the laws governing the cameras.
“It really was designed to be like a high-cost parking ticket,” he said at the meeting. “It wasn’t supposed to go to the Uniform Traffic Citation. Our charge was $125, and none of it went to the state.”
When Palm Coast’s City Council decided to expand its red-light camera program years ago, City Manager Jim Landon said, it was because council members were seeing the cameras’ safety impact: About 90% of people who got a violation notice never got another, and the number of violations dropped dramatically after the cameras were installed.
“From day one, this program has obviously changed driver behavior,” he said at the meeting. “The first original 10 cameras we installed in 2008 … if you annualized it, there were 12,000 citations issued. In 2014, if you annualize it, it’s 2,235.”
“The reason that city staff supported it, was that we were seeing the impact. We were seeing those numbers coming down,” he said.
But state legal changes have made the tickets such a hassle for drivers to deal with, he said, that it might still be better to eliminate the program than to keep it.
“People are actually finding their license is suspended because they didn’t pay (the fine),” he said, and once that happens, it costs more that $400 to get it back.
That system not only causes cited residents hassle than the city never intended when it started the camera program, Landon said, it doesn’t benefit the city, either.
“When it goes to a Uniform Traffic Citation, the city makes $0,” he said. “State law says the cities cannot receive revenue based on the number of citations that are issued. It has to be a flat amount.”
The cameras have generated opposition wherever they’re installed.
Common complaints include the fact that the money from violations goes to an out-of-state company, that the cameras lack the discretion a law enforcement officer might use, and that people worried about getting cited by the cameras sometimes slam on the brakes when they approach intersection where a light is yellow, risking rear-end crashes.
CarMichael McMillan, who is organizing a petition drive to get the cameras pulled out of Palm Coast, said he’s heard all those reasons, and he called the cameras bad for the city.
“I know people in Flagler Beach who will not drive through Palm Coast,” he said at the meeting. “It’s hurting our image.”
McMillan has about 10,000 of the 14,000 petition signatures he needs to collect by May 19 in order to have the red-light camera issue qualify for a ballot referendum, he said, but he asked City Council members to consider moving on their own to eliminate the cameras before November.
City Councilman Bill McGuire said he won’t vote to remove the camera program if the issue comes up for a City Council vote.
“I supported it before, I support it now,” he said. “I will not support unilaterally cancelling the contract with ATS, because I don’t want it on my conscience that someone’s loved one was killed by a red-light runner when I had a chance to do something about it.”
McGuire called the cameras “a moral issue that the city has to deal with,” and said there are “too many whacked-out drivers out there” who will, in hearings he called “sobering,” come up with just about any excuse to get out of a ticket after blowing through a red light.
McGuire said that if residents decide through referendum to eliminate the cameras, he would not oppose them.
Numerous residents spoke on the cameras during the meeting’s public comment period.
Former City Council member Alan Peterson said that when he was on the City Council that voted to start the camera program, the number of car accidents decreased in the majority of intersections where they were installed, and the rate was unchanged in the others.
He suggested the city remove some of the cameras temporarily to see if they’re still affecting driver behavior and accidents the way they were then.
Palm Coast resident Janet McDonald called the cameras a symptom of a “Big Brother society,” and said she’d once received a violation notice for a car she didn’t even own.
“We got a ticket for a Suburban with a license plate that’s similar to one my daughter had at one time,” she said. “We don’t have a Suburban.”
Another resident said much of the frustration from the cameras stems from a lack of clarity on the rules surrounding right on red turns.
“This right on red, if I had my way, I would say to hell with right on red,” he said. “You just stop when the light is red, and you proceed when the light is green …
The thing is, the right on red does not help the pedestrians … It’s not fair for them. And this fear of losing money and so forth is malarkey.”
Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts said changes in state law caused much of that confusion.
State law requires a full and complete stop, he said, but the state regulations on red light cameras state that the cameras may not to be used to cite drivers making a “safe and prudent” right on red turn.
Palm Coast determined that “safe and prudent” was 12 mph or slower.
But although the city has generally not ticketed such slow right-on-red turns, Netts said, that doesn’t mean it’s okay not to stop and look both ways before proceeding.
“There’s a 77-year-old lady in the hospital right now as a result of an improper right on red,” he said.
“We know what happens when you approach a red light. You look to the left, and you proceed and turn and don’t look to the right. And we have incident after incident after incident of pedestrians and cyclists who come out the loser of that confrontation.”