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Ventura Takes On Scofflaws With Cameras

March 31, 2001|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Starting Monday, Ventura becomes the second city in the county to install cameras at busy intersections to nab motorists driving through red lights.

Oxnard has had a camera system in place since 1997, and traffic experts there say it has contributed to a 32% decrease in the number of vehicles running red lights. And Thousand Oaks may be next to photograph its traffic scofflaws.

A Washington-based traffic consultant has been hired by that city for $15,000 to study whether intersection cameras will reduce such violations.

Ventura's $1-million digital camera system is expected to discourage drivers who run red lights, and consequently cause the most serious collisions, officials said.

Within five days of being caught on camera, a violator will receive a computer printout in the mail complete with multiple photographs of the incident along with a court date.

For the first 30 days, the cameras will be operational but violators will receive a warning letter rather than a citation. But beginning in May, citations will be sent with fines of $271.

"This tells drivers that we are omnipresent," Ventura Police Sgt. John Turner said. "The sooner a violator gets their notice, the better chance they will have of putting up a defense."

Despite the photographic evidence, the systems aren't always successful at wresting fines from violators. Because of mechanical or other problems, only about half the violators caught on camera in Southern California end up paying a fine.

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Turner acknowledges no camera system is perfect. Glare from the sun, blurred images and other problems that would inhibit any camera can sometimes work against the intersection system, he said.

Despite accuracy and privacy concerns raised by civil libertarians, government and police officials support the systems.

Oxnard was the first city in Southern California to install a camera system four years ago. Beverly Hills soon followed. It is estimated that at least 20 cities in Southern California will install systems within the next year.

"It's worked great for us," said Oxnard Police Chief Art Lopez. "Where people used to speed, we have been able to lower speeds."

A study done two years after Oxnard installed its cameras, which unlike Ventura's digital system contain film that requires developing, showed that red-light violations in the city had dropped by 72%.

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

Nearly half the injury accidents in Ventura during 1999 were the result of one driver running a red light or red arrow and striking another vehicle. A 40% reduction in collisions is not unreasonable to expect, Turner said.

"Our mind-set in Southern California is so often motivated by challenging yellow lights. . . . It results in the majority of our injuries," he added.

Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., based in Australia, is not charging Ventura for installation of its system.

The company expects to recoup its investment from the tickets issued, said company spokesman Steve Stanford.

Projected ticket revenue could exceed $5 million in the first 18 months of the five-year contract. Redflex will keep 86% of revenues from fines and the city will receive the remaining 14%, Stanford said.

After 18 months, the formula shifts and the city collects 76% of the revenue with the remainder going to Redflex.

Ventura's first cameras have already been installed at two Victoria Avenue intersections--at Telegraph and Telephone roads. The remaining cameras will be installed by summer at 18 other intersections, Turner said.

Each system consists of two cameras. One photographs the vehicle's rear license plate, while a second snaps a shot of the driver's face.

The images will then be downloaded to a Redflex computer in Scottsdale, Ariz. From there, the images are shipped online to the Ventura Police Department. A local officer will determine whether a violation has occurred and, if so, a notice will be sent.

But Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said intersection cameras clearly violate motorists' right to privacy.

"The 4th Amendment applies to people in public places," Ripston said. "You should be able to drive in the street without the government taking your picture. . . .In the name of safety we could restrict all kinds of behavior in this country."

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