California makes millions from red-light cameras. A number of cities are starting to inquire whether the safety benefits outweight the costs.
Towns are losing money for a number of reasons from the red-light camera program: (1) high cost of paying the company operating them, (2) so many tickets litigated by lawyers & tied up in California courts, and (3) the net fines that go to California, DUI attorneys learned.
Studies show that a substantial number of the tickets are given to people making legal right-hand turns on red lights, and that people stopping abruptly to avoid tickets can cause accidents.
The bulk of the ticket fines went to the state or to Redflex, the Australia-based company that operates the cameras.
At least nine cities in San Diego County use red-light cameras and others are contemplating them. In the City of San Diego, which has 15 cameras installed at various intersections, there has been no discussion of terminating the program.
“I’m aware that some other cities are having trouble in traffic court,” Lt. Tim Saelens said, who works the traffic division of the San Diego Police Department. “The problem is usually the officer is not capable of explaining how the equipment works, but for our guys we have had a lot of training and they can answer those questions in court.”
Officials in El Cajon or Del Mar continue to support their red-light cameras.
Car accidents have been reduced by about 30 percent in El Cajon where red-camera lights have been in place since 1996, said traffic engineer Mario Sanchez.
National City has been considering cameras for six months, but has not been able to negotiate a good price yet, City Manager Chris Zapata said.
He said the city is carefully weighing cost because it doesn’t want to end up in a situation where the program becomes an expense.
“There are circumstances where the cameras are perceived as revenue generators when they are actually expenditures,” Zapata said. “We want this to be revenue neutral.”
In Los Angeles, City Controller Wendy Greuel released a report earlier this year saying the city’s red-light camera program is actually costing the city money — up to $1.5 million annually. Her study found no improvement to traffic safety due to the program.
But on Tuesday the city’s civilian board that oversees the city police department agreed to keep the program.
The five members of the Police Commission found that even though 77 percent of citations issued last year have gone uncollected, the four-year-old program was effective in reducing traffic collisions at the 32 city intersections where the cameras are installed.
“This program should not be viewed as a profit generator,” Commission President John Mack said. “The point is public safety, the point is to save people’s lives.”
Whittier shuttered its program in November, choosing not to renew its contract with Nestor Traffic Systems, citing no improvement in traffic safety and declining revenue, the Whittier Daily News reported.
Because of a state law passed in 2004, renewing the contract would have meant paying Nestor a flat fee instead of a percentage of each ticket — not a good deal for the city, Whittier interim Police Chief Jeff Piper told the Daily News.
Anaheim voters have also turned off their red-light cameras, voting in November to ban them and other automated systems. The measure passed by an overwhelming 73 percent.
More than a dozen other California cities have decided against automatic ticketing programs as well.
The backlash is not just in California. Recently, Houston also passed a ballot initiative putting an end to red-light cameras.
Loma Linda is the latest California city to drop their red-light cameras. Attorneys hope they break for good.