Wary of the recent backlash against traffic surveillance cameras in San Diego, Mission Viejo has temporarily put the brakes on a proposal to install the devices at busy intersections to catch red-light runners.
The city's Planning Commission decided to shelve the matter until late August, when the City Council will hold another public forum on the controversial devices.
In San Diego, surveillance cameras came under heavy scrutiny after city officials discovered that the cameras' sensors were improperly installed at three intersections--leading to a shutdown of the city's 19 cameras and dismissal of hundreds of traffic tickets.
Critics there also have questioned whether the devices have been rigged by Lockheed Martin Corp., the San Diego system's designer and operator, which receives $70 for each ticket issued.
"I don't think the San Diego nightmare dissuades us," said Jack Anderson, chairman of the Mission Viejo Planning Commission. "It enlightens us and makes us sensitive to possible resistance. Maybe we can learn to be more public-relations conscious. I know a lot of people are concerned that this would be done for revenue purposes. But our first concern is always safety."
Anderson said he doesn't expect to see a public uproar in the south Orange County city. Only two residents showed up at a Planning Commission's public hearing on the traffic cameras last week.
"The one guy who talked said he didn't appreciate the appearance of Big Brother taking pictures of people at intersections," Anderson said.
Still, the city is sensitive to the stir that red-light cameras have caused in San Diego and elsewhere across the country, and will be cautious before moving forward, he said.
Planning commissioner Norman Murray is skeptical of the cameras, especially considering an Orange County Sheriff's Department report that only 8% of all traffic accidents at Mission Viejo intersections last year involved red-light violators.
"I don't see a big trend toward this," Murray said. "I'm not going to vote for this unless you show me there's a significant safety advantage."
However, the sheriff's report also said cities such as Irvine and San Juan Capistrano have had positive experiences with their camera systems. San Juan Capistrano, which began using cameras in March 2000, has seen a 32% reduction in collisions at the three intersections over the last year.
"Before this program was implemented, I saw a blatant disregard for the signal light," said Tim Jansen, an Orange County sheriff's deputy who oversees the program in San Juan Capistrano. "It's been so successful, we want to expand it to three more locations."
Larry Gilbert, a community activist who has been an outspoken critic of the Mission Viejo City Council, isn't sure where he stands on cameras at traffic lights.
"I would need to be convinced there is a high incidence of intersection accidents and that the rate could be lowered by putting in cameras," Gilbert said. "I just don't want it to be an overreaction and maybe a violation of our privacy."
The sophisticated systems, triggered by a vehicle's motion when a light turns from yellow to red, take photos of a vehicle's license plate as it passes through an intersection.
The devices began cropping up across Southern California four years ago, first in Oxnard, then in Beverly Hills. Within the next year, about 20 cities expect to install them.
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Caught on Film
Traffic surveillance cameras, commonly used at busy intersections, take photos of a vehicle's license plate as the traffic light turns from yellow to red. How a typical system works: