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Red-Light Cameras Focus of Disputes


Foes of red-light cameras are having a field day in San Diego, where alleged snafus in the system have led to the shutdown of the city's 19 cameras and dismissal of hundreds of traffic citations.

San Diego has become the front line in the battle over cameras, which snap photos of motorists running red lights. Shutdown of the cameras and a slew of legal challenges to the city's photo-enforcement system have drawn national attention.

Not only is the credibility of red-light camera systems at stake, but also public safety.

Considering the number of deaths and injuries in accidents involving people running red lights, it would be unfortunate if mistakes and miscalculations made in San Diego's program threatened the viability of red-light systems in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Certainly, it is cause for alarm that Lockheed Martin Corp., the camera vendor, acknowledged that the cameras' sensors were installed in the wrong place at three intersections, which could have led to errors and unfair citations.

The inaccuracies weren't discovered until a couple of tenacious lawyers began challenging the system on behalf of 290 ticketed motorists. They argue that Lockheed Martin, a private company, plays too big a role in the city's enforcement program and that making money has taken priority over saving lives.

Lockheed officials say the misplacement of sensors in San Diego was unintentional and deny that the company is making installation decisions based on the potential for revenue.

Nevertheless, complaints that the automated enforcement cameras are an invasion of privacy and are set to entrap motorists primarily to make money for cities and vendors have made their way to Congress. House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) has called for hearings on the use of red-light cameras, dubbing them "Orwellian cash machines."

The whole red-light mess in San Diego could certainly trigger protests against the cameras in other cities. So far, though, officials in Los Angeles say they haven't seen a wave of motorists contesting citations prompted by the red-light cameras installed this year.

From Jan. 1 to June 15, the Los Angeles Police Department issued 4,863 citations based on red-light cameras at the five intersections that were tracked during that period. Of those citations, 119 were contested. Of the contested citations, 86 were upheld, said Sgt. John Gambill.

Indeed, officials say that what happened in San Diego could not happen in Los Angeles.

Despite the fact that Lockheed Martin also is the camera vendor in Los Angeles, the system in L.A. is run quite differently, said John Fisher, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

San Diego's contract gave the company a lot of latitude in the construction and installation of the systems, and that's what apparently has led to the brouhaha.

"We are a little smarter than that, to be quite honest," Gambill says. "We have a lot of faith in the fact that we didn't rely entirely on Lockheed."

All construction in L.A.--including placement of sensors and wiring to all the signal control cabinets--was done by Department of Transportation engineers.

L.A. city officials did not give the vendor access to sensors or the ability to change the length of signal light phases.

Though some critics of the cameras in San Diego allege that the yellow-light phases have been shortened to make it easier to catch people running a red light, Fisher says that's not happening in Los Angeles because the city follows state guidelines on signal lengths. Depending on the roadway and average speeds, yellow-light times generally vary between 3 and 6 seconds, he says.

"We would use the same yellow phase at an intersection whether or not there was a red-light camera," Fisher says.

Eight Los Angeles intersections have been outfitted with red-light cameras and eight more are scheduled under the pilot project, which started in early 1999.

Under L.A.'s contract with Lockheed, the city receives $141 of every $271 red-light camera citation that is paid. The city keeps $81 and and forwards $60 to Lockheed. The remaining $130 goes to state and county agencies.

Unlike many cities with red-light cameras, Los Angeles does not pay a standard monthly fee to Lockheed. The company receives its $60-per-citation fee only if the ticket is reviewed and authorized by police and is paid. "We have the final say as to whether a citation is issued," the LAPD's Gambill says.

"Quite honestly, we hope no one would have to pay a red-light ticket," he adds. "Then we would have succeeded."


Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Please do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail:

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