Loading...

Jay Beeber: Folk Hero Stops L.A.'s Red Light Cameras 

Thursday, Jun 16 2011
Comments (1)

Big Brother may not be watching L.A. drivers anymore. The city Police Commission voted unanimously on June 7 against an LAPD recommendation for a new five-year, $15 million contract to continue operating the widely hated red-light cameras at 32 intersections citywide.

The Los Angeles City Council can overturn the Police Commission with a supermajority, but on Tuesday council members Tony Cardenas and Bernard Parks instead floated a plan to pressure the commission to reverse its vote — which ends the program on July 31 — and to conduct a "safety study" while keeping the camera contract alive, on a monthly basis, for one year.

The unpopular cameras have churned out virtually unbeatable tickets to tens of thousands of Angelenos, most of whom got socked with an eye-popping $450 fine for rolling through a right turn on red — a violation that almost never results in accidents.

click to enlarge Jay Beeber, red-light camera foe
  • Jay Beeber, red-light camera foe

Related Stories

  • Drones in L.A. 7

    The Los Angeles Police Department's acquisition of two Draganflyer drones has Los Angeles buzzing about the possibility of Big Brother watching you from overhead. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said yesterday that the unmanned aerial vehicles would be used only for "tactical events" such as SWAT standoffs and searches for outstanding suspects believed to...
  • L.A. Sheriff's Employee Murdered in South L.A.

    An L.A. County Sheriff's Department employee was murdered in South L.A. last night, the Los Angeles Police Department said. The 4-year department veteran was not a sworn officer but rather was a county security guard, an LAPD spokesman told us. He was identified as ...  ... 33-year-old Calvin Eugene Gray of...
  • LAPD Unit Looking For Nude Man Runs Him Over 4

    A Los Angeles Police Department patrol unit en route to a report of a nude man in the street ended up hitting and killing the pedestrian, police said. You might not want to judge the driver too harshly, here, however. The victim wasn't where cops were told he was, and...
  • USC Murder Arrests 3

    Los Angeles police overnight named two of four suspects arrested in connection with the murder of a USC engineering student who was walking home from a study group when he was attacked early Thursday. Johnathan DelCarmen, 19, and Andrew Garcia, 18, were both booked on suspicion of "murder with special circumstances,"...
  • Hot DUI Crackdown

    It will be one of the warmest weekends so far this year.  And the heat will be on the streets, too. Yes, it's time once again for our DUI checkpoint and patrol cheat sheet, in which the Los Angeles Police Department and other agencies warn you about where they'll be...

If the Police Commission holds firm, the slayer of the electronic Goliaths, and arguably L.A.'s newest folk hero, is a very unlikely David.

San Fernando Valley resident and sometime TV writer and producer Jay Beeber politely pestered the Police Commission and City Council with studies showing that, despite repeated claims by Los Angeles Police Department brass, red-light cameras were not a major factor in improving safety.

More than 100,000 motorists were cited by the silent sentinels over 10 years. According to the LAPD, only 1 percent of motorists won "not guilty" findings in court. Atop the $450, drivers paid traffic school fees and costly insurance hikes.

Yet an audit by City Controller Wendy Greuel revealed that the city was losing more than $1 million a year on the program.

How did an unknown Hollywood producer, whose key project was "Kisses and Caroms" in 2006, help persuade L.A. to become the biggest U.S. city to turn against red-light cameras — a decision that, if it stands, is likely to reverberate nationally?

"Jay's done a great job synthesizing his research, which we helped proof and critique," says Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association. "It's been a tireless effort on his part. He's a libertarian at heart and for him it's a fairness issue — how unfair it is to get a $450 ticket for a rolling right turn. Jay's campaign shows what a grassroots effort can do against a very large program in a very large city. He's taken on City Hall, and to this point it looks like he's won."

Beeber says he was motivated by sheer scientific curiosity rather than anger. He hasn't had a moving violation in 20 years. But in 2009, he began to apply the scientific method he learned at the University of Michigan to the data supporting the use of red-light-camera tickets.

He estimates he spent thousands of hours, and ultimately caught LAPD making dubious claims based on iffy data. One such claim was that five fatal accidents occurred at specific intersections before the red-light cameras were installed, and none occurred after. But two of the five accidents were not red light–related, he says, and a third involved a drunken driver who zipped through despite a camera there, mounted by a previous vendor. The fourth, "caused by a young distracted driver," likely would not have been prevented by a camera.

"They were suggesting the cameras were stopping fatalities," he says, "but the examples they gave would not have been stopped by a red-light camera."

Beeber wrote detailed reports on arcane issues such as the wisdom of increasing the "yellow light interval" and calmly repeated his findings during appearances on KABC and KFI radio— to strong public reaction.

Among other things, the image of "red-light runners" isn't accurate, he says. "Most people are caught in the dilemma zone: Do I stop or go through the light? In almost every case, lengthening the yellow light cuts red-light violations, as people see the light further back." Loma Linda, he says, lengthened yellow lights by one second and red-light violations dropped 92 percent.

One expert Beeber contacted, Dr. Barbara Langland-Orban of the University of South Florida, found in a 2008 study that red-light cameras increase accidents because drivers see the camera and slam on their brakes.

Langland-Orban says, "Jay has worked diligently to make himself an expert," adding dryly, "Communities would benefit from elected officials doing likewise."

Charles Territo, vice president of communications at Scottsdale, Ariz.–based American Traffic Solutions, which operates 3,000 cameras in 300 communities, will lose a $15 million contract if the Police Commission vote stands. He's dismissive of Beeber, saying, "Just because he says it, doesn't make it so."

Territo says LAPD stats show a 62 percent decrease in accidents at intersections after cameras were installed. But Beeber says, "Most of the studies that show the cameras were effective were put out by groups with a financial interest in keeping the cameras, like the Insurance Group for Highway Safety."

He says that of about 56,000 accidents studied in L.A., rolling right turns, which represent some 75 percent of the red-light camera tickets, caused only 45 crashes.

He started to realize "this was much more about revenue than safety," and redoubled his efforts after Greuel's report, which found that "the city actually incurred a net cost of more than $1.5 million in 2008 and $1 million in 2009 to operate the Photo Red Light Program."

Feeling vindicated by Greuel's audit, Beeber met with LAPD and city Department of Transportation officials, then later spoke before the Police Commission. He lobbied City Council members.

"The city government and council had only been hearing one side," Beeber says. "I put together a grassroots organization to have these things heard. Then we put up the website [saferstreetsla.org] and it got more people interested." Before he knew it, many people were behind him and several "came down to speak at City Hall and before the Police Commission."

Police Commissioner Alan Skobin says he didn't buy into all of Beeber's claims, but Beeber "supplied the commission helpful information that was well documented."

Skobin was bothered by the fact that people who failed to pay the $450 faced "virtually no consequences." Unknown to tens of thousands of drivers who did pay the fine, the Los Angeles Superior Court, queasy over robot-issued tickets, quietly chose not to issue arrest warrants or put driver's license holds on those who failed to pay the tickets. "The LAPD went back to [the court officials] and the courts said, 'It's often not clear who the driver is.' "

Skobin thinks it could be more effective to try a longer yellow light, four-way red signal, education and enforcement. "And as Mr. Beeber pointed out," he says, "many of the accidents were drunk drivers going through the red. So the camera didn't matter" as a deterrent.

Territo of American Traffic Solutions scoffs, "Somehow, the people who run the lights have labeled themselves as victims, when the real victims are the 212 people killed [in Los Angeles] and thousands injured," in the past decade.

If Los Angeles yanks the cameras, it will have company. Voters in Houston and Anaheim last year banished them, Costa Mesa and Compton rejected them and Whittier pulled out. When Loma Linda banned them last year, Mayor Rhodes Rigsby said, "Ding-dong, the witch is dead."

"You can make a difference if you really believe in something," Beeber says. "But it's a marathon. You have to continue day after day after day to make a difference, because power doesn't give up power easily."

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets

Slideshows

  • Street League Skateboarding Super Crown World Championship
    On Sunday, Street League Skateboarding touched down in the Galen Center at USC as part of a four-stop tour for SLS's Super Crown World Championship. The L.A. stop determined the roster for Super Crown, airing August 24th on FOX Sports 1. The final eight are Nyjah Huston, Luan Oliveira, Torey Pudwill, Shane O'Neill, Paul Rodriguez, Chaz Ortiz, Matt Berger and Ishod Wair. All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Comic-Con's "Celebrity" Autograph Area
    A sometimes overlooked (but still incredibly unique) aspect of San Diego Comic-Con are the celebs available to sign autographs, as well as the autograph seekers themselves. If you've ever wanted to meet the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld or the guy who played Michelangelo in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, chances are, as you wander the Autograph Area, you'll be able to connect with someone you didn't even realize you were waiting your whole life to meet! All photos by Rob Inderrieden.
  • Real Madrid Soccer Practice at UCLA
    Fans came out to greet world champion soccer team Real Madrid as they practice at UCLA. This is the first time that soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo has practiced with the team this year. All photos by Jeff Cowan.