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Cameras Spot Red-Light Runners, but Tickets Lag

Traffic: Cities are adding the systems, but glitches let many violators evade penalty.


Despite the fancy sensors and the latest technology, about half of red-light runners caught by high-tech cameras at certain busy intersections elude citations.

Even so, cities are adding the cameras at a rapid pace, arguing that despite limitations, the cameras are reducing accidents and prompting motorists to think twice before gunning through red lights.

The sophisticated systems--triggered by a motorist's speed when a light turns from yellow to red--began cropping up across Southern California four years ago, first in Oxnard and then Beverly Hills. Within the next year, some 20 area cities expect to be using them. Los Angeles, which began monitoring four intersections in December, plans to have 16 covered with cameras by the end of summer.

Who gets away with red-light running when the camera is on is often a matter of chance.

The pictures are not always clear enough to stand up in court, where judges require images of the license plate as well as the face of the driver. Sun glare, for example, can mar the camera's picture of either one. Also, some drivers have their heads down or turned toward a passenger.

Gender mismatches are often thrown out--the driver is a man, for example, but the registered owner is a woman. Or maybe the license plate is partially obstructed by dirt or a trailer hitch. In a few cases, a driver who triggered the camera managed to slam on the brakes and stop in time.

In cities where cameras shoot only from the front--including West Hollywood and Beverly Hills--anyone without a front license plate will get a free pass. Some drivers get past the system by wearing sunglasses or pulling caps low on their heads, though officials doubt these are deliberate attempts to evade getting one of the $271 tickets.

"Not that many people leave the house thinking they're out to beat a red light that day," said Brenda Miller, founder of Redflex Systems, which operates cameras for police in California and three other states.

West Hollywood traffic engineer Joyce Rooney said she isn't bothered that her city's citation rate of photographed motorists isn't higher. West Hollywood takes about 3,000 pictures of likely violators a month, rotating cameras among 16 intersections, which results in about 1,500 tickets issued.

"That's 1,500 people causing potential accidents who have to pay a price they wouldn't otherwise pay," she said.

Highway-safety experts say that nationwide, more than 200,000 people each year are injured in collisions caused by red-light runners. More than 800 are killed.

But a survey of cities that use the red-light cameras suggests that the presence of the lights has cut accidents.

When Garden Grove council members last year agreed to a one-intersection test, traffic engineer George Allen knew the one he wanted: Brookhurst Street at Westminster Avenue. It was rated by State Farm Insurance as one of the 10 top accident intersections in the state.

Since the cameras were installed 10 months ago, the number of accidents there has been reduced by 52%, Allen said.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety studies show that the cameras are a deterrent, cutting by half the number of people running red lights at those intersections. Spokesman Richard Retting said a new report due soon will show data on how much the cameras actually have reduced accidents.

Garden Grove is using the state's first digital system, in which motorists' images pop up on computer. The city is already considering additional cameras even as it tries to perfect what officials consider shortcomings in the system. Citations are issued for 39% of pictures taken. Officials say it's taking longer than expected to work out the bugs.

In San Juan Capistrano, Sheriff's Department officials have been trying to perfect their court presentations to satisfy judges. And some motorists who plead not guilty are getting convicted.

Stephen Crapo went to court convinced he'd beat his ticket for running a red light. His vehicle had triggered the new camera at a San Juan Capistrano intersection.

To Crapo, a Saddleback College football coach, the picture evidence on his citation was inconclusive. Besides, he knew he was innocent. He'd never drive like that.

"But the police brought in color blowups, showing me approaching the intersection," Crapo said. "No question, I definitely ran that light. I was shocked."

Successful court challenges against San Juan Capistrano's cameras rank among the highest in the region. Of 82 cases that went to court this past year, 33 were dismissed. But most of those cases came in the first few months, when Orange County Superior Court judges working from the South Justice Center in Laguna Niguel were unhappy with the citation pictures offered by the police.

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