A lot of people don't like red-light cameras. But perhaps nowhere in California is the opposition more heated than in Anaheim.
Not only does the City Council not want to install any of the cameras, but it is preparing a ballot measure that would permanently ban them.
Mayor Curt Pringle, who is driving the effort during his last year in office, said he does not want future city governments tempted to collect revenue "on the back of public safety."
"There is always pressure on local government to raise revenue, and I think this is one of those options that … should be taken off the table completely," he said.
The City Council voted unanimously last week in support of Pringle's proposal to amend the City Charter to prohibit the use of automated traffic enforcement systems. Members now plan to adopt a resolution to put the amendment on the ballot for the November general election, which Pringle said would be the least expensive way to put the matter before voters.
A number of California cities are reviewing the costs and benefits of red-light cameras, said Jennifer Whiting, a lobbyist for the League of California Cities. But she was not aware of any municipality that has taken steps to prevent the system from ever being used.
Red-light violations accounted for nearly 40% of the 2,397 accidents at Anaheim intersections between 2007 and 2009, said city police spokesman Sgt. Rick Martinez. In all, there were 12,858 traffic accidents during that period.
Dozens of California cities have turned to automated photo enforcement systems in recent years to monitor dangerous intersections around the clock. Supporters say the cameras discourage red-light running, free up patrol officers for other duties and provide a welcome boost to government coffers.
Garden Grove saw a 46% decline in accidents at camera-monitored intersections, said city traffic engineer Dan Candelaria, citing a 2004-05 Orange County grand jury report that compared police figures from the year before and the year after the system was installed at three intersections.
Eight of the city's intersections are now covered.
"The main goal of the program was to reduce accidents," Candelaria said. "It's delivered on that, and I think we're all happy with it."
Pringle contends that that argument is "somewhat of a ruse."
"I believe there is enough evidence now that demonstrates that red-light cameras do not necessarily cause safer intersections," he said at last week's council meeting. "I believe many red-light cameras that are placed around the county and around the state are done for the purpose of local governments' revenue collection as opposed to traffic safety."
In Costa Mesa, the number of crashes increased 13% at the four intersections equipped with cameras between 2003 and 2009, said Sgt. Greg Scott of the city Police Department. The figure included a 20% increase in rear-end collisions, which critics say are a risk when motorists brake suddenly to avoid being caught on camera running a light.
However, the police study also found that the number of broadside collisions — often the most devastating accidents — dropped 30%, and the number of crashes resulting in injury decreased 15%.
The private company that operated the system during the study has gone into receivership, and the city is considering whether to continue using the cameras, Scott said. Only two intersections are currently covered.
Earlier this year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed using red-light cameras to enforce speed limits in a bid to generate additional revenue to help close the state budget gap. But some city officials are beginning to question the cost-effectiveness of the system for their municipalities.
Cities pay private contractors to install and operate the systems. The revenue collected from traffic violations is then shared between the state, county and local governments.
Although the number of citations issued at intersections generally increases when cameras are installed, motorists don't always pay the fees, which can top $500. Some citations are dismissed by courts, and a growing number of motorists opt for community service.
The Los Angeles city budget office reported last month that the city collects about $3.8 million a year from its 32 camera-equipped intersections, which is roughly what the program costs. Because some red-light ticket income is dedicated to other traffic safety programs, such as school crossing guards, the city has been paying an extra $1.6 million a year from its cash-strapped general fund to keep the camera program going.