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Those Red-Light Cameras Stir a Lively Debate

November 22, 2000|JEANNE WRIGHT

One of the fiercest hot-button issues for drivers today is the debate over traffic-light camera enforcement.

Whenever we write about the pros and cons of the automated systems, which photograph red-light violators as they run the intersection, readers split into two camps. They either hate and fear the cameras or welcome them as a way to save lives.

As more cities in California and across the country install the systems, drivers are fighting back. Many are turning to Web sites such as for help in beating the citations, which in California typically carry a $271 fine.

Though some are simply looking for a way to avoid the hefty fine, others complain that the automated red-light enforcement is government playing Big Brother. Many of these critics contend that the enforcement system is more about making money for local governments than about saving lives.

The tickets are contested mostly over the clarity of the photos. Some angry drivers have resorted to removing their vehicles' front license plates or even obscuring their faces to avoid detection, according to police.

"It's the people who violate these laws who are upset," said San Juan Capistrano Police Lt. Rick Stahr. "If you're doing something wrong and you get caught, how come you're upset?"

The bottom line is "lives are lost and serious injuries do occur when red lights are run," he said.

San Juan Capistrano, one of the first cities in Orange County to install the red-light cameras, has seen a 70% reduction in the number of accidents at intersections equipped with the system, Stahr said.

The city's experience after seven months of red-light camera enforcement illustrates both the promise and the challenges of automated ticketing.

Its success in reducing red-light running accidents mirrors results seen in other communities. Studies of camera-equipped urban intersections across the country have documented a 40% to 60% drop in red-light violations, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va.

But San Juan Capistrano has also seen a number of court challenges to the camera-generated tickets.

Of the 1,719 citations issued since the cameras were installed in April, 67 have been challenged and resulted in court trials. Forty-one of those cases ended in a conviction and 26 citations were dismissed for various reasons, including unclear photos and failure to identify the drivers, said Orange County Sheriff's Deputy Tim Jansen, who oversees the city's red-light enforcement efforts.

Most of the dismissals occurred when the cameras were first being used. Now that police are more familiar with the technical operation of the system and the kind of evidence needed to uphold the citations, the dismissals have decreased, Jansen said.

Other cities--Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, San Diego and San Francisco, to name a few--have faced challenges by irate drivers who believe they were incorrectly or unfairly cited for running a red light.

(Los Angeles hopes to have its first four red-light cameras in place next month, well beyond their originally scheduled July 1 installation. The delay was caused by a prolonged negotiation with the vendor, city officials said.

(Cameras are already in place at a few intersections within the city limits, as at Wilshire and Sepulveda, but under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff's Department or other non-city agencies.)

On the TicketAssassin Web site, created by San Diego traffic school owner Patrick Mulroy, the message reads "Automated red-light enforcement is a sham."

Mulroy's site contends that the cameras do not reduce the number of accidents and serve only to profit cities and the corporations that market the camera systems.

"Only through resistance by an informed citizenry can the malignant expansion of this technology, the damage it has inflicted on our democracy, be checked and destroyed," the site says.


But red-light running, according to traffic safety advocates, police and the insurance industry, has become one of the most serious examples of aggressive driving in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

The Insurance Institute estimates that red-light violations cause about 260,000 crashes a year in the U.S. and result in about 800 deaths and 120,000 injuries.

"People go on the Internet, do research and try to call this entrapment," Jansen said. "Well, they don't really understand what entrapment is.

"Some argue it's a violation of their right to privacy or that the light was yellow, not red," he said. He has seen drivers try to deny it's them in the photo, even when they are clearly pictured behind the wheel.

In one case in which the driver in the photo had a mustache, "the guy brought his wife in to testify that he'd never had a mustache," Jansen said. Although both Jansen and the judge believed the man was the driver pictured, the citation was dismissed because the top part of his head was obscured by the vehicle's sun visor.

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