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.
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.' "
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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."