Debate Over Red Light Cameras Flaring Up in Santa Clara County CA

From San Francisco to Santa Cruz to Fremont, nearly two dozen cities in Northern California use cameras to catch drivers who run red lights — and a lot of studies suggest they reduce accidents.

But in Santa Clara County, there is not a single red-light camera, and San Jose police are speaking out against them, partly for fear that they may cause more accidents.

Why? If you know the camera is there, the theory goes, you’re more likely to slam on your brakes at a yellow light, increasing the chances of being rear-ended.

The debate over these devices, which snap a picture of the front and back of any car that enters an intersection when the light is red, came to San Jose City Hall this month, when Deputy Police Chief Don Anders presented a report to council members recommending against installing the cameras on city streets.

“What studies reveal are an awful lot of ambiguity,” Anders said. “As we look around the country and look at red-light running, some jurisdictions have noted a reduction in traffic accident rate and others have noted an increase in their traffic accident rate.”

The recommendation didn’t go over well with some council members. Several have voiced strong support for the cameras, saying red-light crashes can result in severe injuries and are a growing menace to public safety.

“The recommendation is to essentially let it die,” Councilman Sam Liccardo said. “Some of us are eager to keep alive the option.”

San Jose police oppose the cameras for other reasons: They think having a traffic cop at an intersection is more effective, and they say the cost of installing expensive equipment — $50,000 to $100,000 per intersection — can be better spent.

The bigger debate is: Do red-light cameras make streets safer? Most studies indicate yes, but not all.

A New York Times survey three years ago found that rear-end collisions rose nearly 15 percent after traffic cameras were installed in seven East Coast cities, with injuries from such crashes up 24 percent. Stockton saw a similar jump when it began using cameras.

But a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety two years ago said red-light cameras have reduced side-impact crashes by an average of 24 percent and injuries by 16 percent. San Francisco has reported a 50 percent drop in crashes as a result of its cameras, and Fremont has seen a 40 percent decline, those cities report.

“We believe that the cameras are very effective not only in reducing the number of traffic signal-related collisions,” said Fremont officer Geneva Bosques, “but also in educating the public on traffic safety.”

Cupertino is the only Santa Clara County city that has ever used these cameras, but it removed them after a two-year trial period in 2004 because tickets did not cover the $110,000 cost.

Red-light crashes have nearly tripled over the last two decades in California, and one in three crashes at busy intersections is caused by drivers running a red light. In Santa Clara County, such wrecks lead to about 1,200 injuries a year.

Menlo Park installed a camera at Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road earlier this year following the death of Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam a year earlier. The car in which he was riding ran a red light and was struck in the intersection.

The state vehicle code permits cameras to be used for red-light enforcement, unlike photo radar, which requires an officer to monitor the equipment and sign off on tickets.

Agencies in Santa Clara County aren’t ignoring red-light runners. The county and cities have installed about 100 “rat boxes,” which are small lights attached to the back of a traffic signal that show when a light has turned red. They enable cops to position themselves down the street from the red light, in a place where they don’t have to run the light themselves to catch the offender.

Yet those lights present a problem. A cop must be present, and most traffic units are understaffed. But when police were present at 10 intersections, the San Jose police study found, crashes fell 19 percent.

Installing red-light cameras would require still more officers to sort through the images, identify drivers and deal with claims of mistaken identity That would require hiring or transferring several officers to the traffic unit, and that is unlikely to happen in these budget-tight times.

The police’s opposition to camera enforcement riles some safety advocates.

“There’s no logic for a police department to oppose these cameras,” said Jonathan Adkins, communications director with the Governors Highway Safety Association. “Their use complements traditional enforcement and is not a replacement for police officers. We can’t have a cop at every intersection.”

Article by Gary Richards – mercurynews.com .

CANDID CAMERAS

Here are some of the cities across California that use cameras to catch drivers who run red lights. They snap a photo of both the front and rear license plates, and advanced systems capture the violation on video. The fine is $370, but fees can add nearly $200 to the cost:

Belmont, Berkeley, Capitola, Citrus Heights, Daly City, Fremont, Glendale, Hayward, Los Angeles, Marysville, Menlo Park, Millbrae, Newark, Oakland, Oxnard, Redwood City, Sacramento, San Carlos, San Diego, San Francisco, San Mateo, San Rafael, Santa Cruz, Santa Maria, Stockton and Union City.

Traffic ticket in California?