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Red-Light Runners, Your Photos Are Ready

Safety: Los Angeles will begin installing cameras at dangerous intersections. Violators will get photo evidence--and a $271 ticket--in the mail.

May 03, 2000|JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Los Angeles, where cars rule and running red lights is becoming something of a tragic pastime, the city is preparing to install its first red-light cameras at some of its most dangerous intersections.

Four of the automated traffic control systems--which photograph red-light violators as they run the intersection--are to be in place by July 1 at locations yet to be determined. A dozen more will be in operation throughout the city by year's end.

Running red lights has become one of the most serious examples of aggressive driving in L.A. and across the country, according to law enforcement agencies, traffic safety advocates and the insurance industry.

"There's a lot of traffic congestion, people are over-scheduled, and time is more important to them than safety," said Julie Rochman, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va.

"We have photos of drivers speeding through red lights at 30 to 40 miles an hour, seven seconds after the light turned red," she said, underscoring the recklessness of those who run lights.

Red-light violations cause about 260,000 crashes a year nationwide and result in about 800 deaths and 120,000 injuries, the Insurance Institute estimates.

Accidents resulting from running red lights and other traffic controls such as stop and yield signs have become the most frequent type of urban crash. The Insurance Institute also reported that a study conducted in Arlington County, an urban area outside Washington, showed that motorists ran red lights at the rate of once every 12 minutes.

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Nevertheless, some opponents of camera enforcement in Los Angeles invoke the specter of George Orwell in complaining that red-light detectors invade drivers' privacy. Others argue that local governments are using safety concerns as an excuse to deploy the cameras to generate ticket revenue.

In voting against their use, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Rita Walters complained: "I just really don't like the idea of the Big Brother overtones that this has. The whole business of being watched by a camera when you are driving . . . seems '1984'-ish."

Said Michael Klein, an L.A. attorney and board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California: "Government always has an excuse for why it should put us under surveillance."

In general, Klein said, the ACLU opposes government surveillance in public places, including photographic surveillance. He argues that under both the U.S. and California constitutions, the right to privacy applies to people even when they are driving.

"There are horror stories of people who have had their pictures taken by these cameras," he said. "The picture is mailed home with the ticket, and if your wife sees you're in the car with another woman, you not only have a traffic ticket, you also have a divorce."

But the invasion-of-privacy argument doesn't hold with Sgt. John Gambill of the Los Angeles Police Department. He points out that our privacy in public is already being "invaded" by photographic scrutiny.

Law-abiding people "are being photographed every time they walk into a bank, go to an ATM or buy a Slurpee at 7-Eleven," said Gambill, coordinator of LAPD's photo-enforcement effort.

Police are justified in using camera enforcement, he said, because "driving is a privilege; it's not a right."

"When you go through a red light, you're breaking the law and it could have tragic consequences," he said. "It's Russian roulette. Drivers are becoming more aggressive and more careless."

Last year, 17 people died and 98 others suffered serious injuries in verified red-light-running crashes in Los Angeles, Gambill said. But he suspects that those figures are low, because some accidents involving red-light violations may be listed instead as being the result of speeding or improper turns.

Nabbing red-light runners is difficult and can endanger others if police pursue the offender through a busy intersection, Gambill said. Law enforcement agencies don't have the resources to stake out every intersection.

The alternative? For Los Angeles and a growing number of municipalities, the answer is red-light cameras.

Studies of urban intersections where the cameras are operating have documented a 40% to 60% drop in red-light violations, said Rochman of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

L.A. Councilwoman Laura Chick, who voted April 7 with a 10-2 majority to approve the city's camera-enforcement plans, said: "The recognized benefits of the photo red-light technology can help make our most dangerous intersections safer for pedestrians and drivers." The camera enforcement is expected to add about $7 million a year to city coffers, but Chick said the program is aimed at saving lives, not making money.

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