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Los Angeles' Red-Light Ticket Ripoff

Illustration by Kyle T. Webster

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?”

It’s the same story in Beverly Hills, where late one night, Sol, a downtown jeweler, was surprised by a photoflash at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Whittier Drive. The light began to change, he says, and “I didn’t want to slam on the brakes at 35 mph and risk an accident.” It’s a story he could have told the officer — if the ticket issuer was human. His fines and traffic school totaled more than $500.

Even in a tough economic climate, motorists can’t get away with not writing a check for the pricey tickets. Nonpayers can be reported to a collection system, and the California Department of Motor Vehicles can then refuse to register the car, or even impound the vehicle.

Those who do fight may well encounter Officer Rafael Santos or another LAPD officer, who take their laptops to court to show the video evidence to the judge. Motorists can also watch a video of their own violation unfolding at viewyourticket.com, and the images are surprisingly good, showing the driver, car, intersection and violation.

As an accident investigator, Santos says, “I see the accidents, I see what happens when somebody dies.” Now, with the camera, “There are no fatals in the intersection.”

Sherman M. Ellison, one of the few attorneys who focuses on non–DUI traffic violations, says that in photo red-light cases, the local cities often fight him tooth and nail. Ellison thinks it’s about money.

“Culver City was paying three lawyers to appear in court against me,” he recalls. “The problem with the photo red-light camera system is that safety isn’t driving these municipalities, revenue is.” If he can’t negotiate a better deal for a client, “I’ll litigate like it’s a real case,” serving subpoenas on the city and dragging people into court.

The city of Paramount seemed to confirm that the red-light camera system is about municipal revenue, and not safety, when it shut down its program after losing money. No matter who’s right, L.A. residents can expect a lot more of these ugly, $500 charges as the city gears up to double the number of camera-rigged intersections to 64 after 2011.

MacWillie says the additional cameras may peer even more closely at what motorists are doing, citing drivers for following too closely or even for turning left once the light turns red — one of the most common practices in L.A., a city in which other motorists generally wait patiently as two or three cars turn left through the red. As for me, over and over, I watched the video of my white Lincoln Aviator going through the intersection, slowing but not stopping. I decided to plead no contest and go to traffic school.