By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In October, a piece of what looked like junk mail sent to me from a P.O. box turned out to contain grainy pictures of my car, license plate and face in the classic L.A.-driving-trance position. I’d been captured on camera doing a “California roll” while making a right turn at a red light at Balboa Avenue and Vanowen Boulevard.
The damage was $446 plus a $64 traffic-school fee and a pricey separate fee that an eight-hour traffic school charged.
Red-light cameras are the RoboCops of traffic enforcement, shooting video 24/7. A staggering 37,000 red light–camera tickets were issued in L.A. through October 31, 2009, according to the LAPD. But do the cameras increase traffic safety — or just pick pockets while actually creating accidents?
The city’s 32 red-light cameras are placed at traffic choke points like Sepulveda and National, Sepulveda and Victory, Western and Washington, Manchester and Airport, Alvarado and Temple, Sunset and Cahuenga and Pico and Bundy. (For a map of all 32 camera-rigged corners, go to lapdonline.org/home/pdf_view/34638.)
“We put them where the traffic collisions were occurring,” says LAPD’s Sergeant Matthew MacWillie, of the Automated Photo Red Light Enforcement Program. “We looked at speeding, a contributing factor to red-light running. We looked at following too closely and DUI-related traffic collisions.”
Dual digital-video cameras capture the violations by snapping a car’s front and back plates. Of the tickets written, about 40 percent are “straight-through” red-light violations, and the rest are rolling right turns. While straight-throughs can cause potentially more serious T-bone crashes, MacWillie says, even during slower, “rolling” right turns, “the vehicle is close to the curb, so if the vehicle was to hit a pedestrian, it would cause significant injury.”
Citing a 40 percent decline in 2008 at intersections with cameras, MacWillie, a 27-year LAPD veteran and accident investigator, says, “Red light–related traffic collisions have dropped every year from 2005. Since the cameras went up, we haven’t had one fatal collision” at these intersections. In the two-year period before, there were nine fatalities at these intersections.”
Many drivers claim that the yellow light changes too quickly at camera-rigged intersections. Glenn Ogura of the city’s Department of Transportation says a yellow light must remain yellow for at least three seconds, but on roads with lower speed limits, the city extends the period to as much as 3.9 seconds. “We don’t reduce yellow time to catch people,” he insists.
American Traffic Solutions, which maintains the city’s cameras and processes the photos, refused an interview request. However, camera citations have been struck down in other California communities that were paying the camera operators on the basis of the number of tickets they issued instead of a flat fee, which is how L.A. handles it. L.A. so far has not been successfully challenged, says MacWillie, because, “It’s not about revenue, it’s about traffic safety.”
But, he concedes, “If it didn’t pay for itself, the city would probably do away with [the camera system].”
In fact, the city’s take from these tickets skyrocketed to $4 million this year, while operational costs ran about $2.5 million. MacWillie says that from a $446 ticket, the state gets $229, L.A. gets about $148, and L.A. County gets $68.
As three layers of government make money off a single ticket, some studies show that red-light cameras cause accidents. Costa Mesa reported a 13 percent increase in total collisions and a 20 percent increase in rear-end collisions after cameras were installed. In 2008, a University of South Florida study found the same. “Red-light cameras don’t work,” says USF Professor Barbara Langland-Orban. “They increase crashes and injuries as drivers attempt to abruptly stop at camera intersections” after spotting the cameras.
In fact, in a recent KCBS computer analysis of L.A. red-light cameras, reporter David Goldstein found that 20 of the city’s 32 camera-rigged intersections have had more accidents, not fewer.
LAPD Officer Rafael Santos, who shows the camera evidence in court and has investigated his share of fatal accidents, is convinced the use of a camera changes behavior. He says, “I love it — I live here, my family lives here. It saves lives.”
The city purports to have a “99 percent” success rate against motorists who try to have their tickets tossed out. A man named Derek, who stood recently in an hourlong line at the Van Nuys Courthouse to turn in his traffic-school completion form, says, “I checked with my attorney, and he told me to forget about it.”
But Joe Roth, a Venice film producer, has a more heated response. He says he was at the corner of Victory Boulevard and Laurel Canyon Boulevard, “making a right on red. The car to my left was running the red light. I got the ticket.”
Roth arranged to plead no contest and attend traffic school but says, “I’m going to draft a bunch of letters.” At traffic lights now, he says, “I just come to a full stop. I’m not turning right on red. I’ve noticed around the city, people won’t turn. Do I need to pay $500 to make a right-hand turn?”