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Calif. police see few results from red-light cameras

The two devices have only slightly reduced accident rates at a key downtown intersection

By Megan Hansen
The Marin Independent Journal

SAN RAFAEL San Rafael is getting rid of its red-light cameras, saying the two devices have only slightly reduced accident rates at a key downtown intersection.

San Rafael police spokeswoman Margo Rohrbacher said the city doesn’t plan to renew its contract with Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. of Phoenix, Ariz., which services the two cameras, when the contract expires at the end of the month.

“Knowing that the contract was going to be coming up, police department staff did an assessment of the program and after looking at the data and that accidents were reduced slightly, the decision was made not to renew the contract,” Rohrbacher said.

San Rafael’s two red-light cameras which costs the city $141,600 a year face northbound Irwin Street at Third Street and westbound Third at Irwin. They were installed in October 2009 as part of a five-year contract, but no fines were actually received by the city until early 2010. The city considered adding eight more cameras, but data didn’t support additional installations.

Rohrbacher said the last date violations were issued was March 3, so the cameras are now dark. At some point Redflex will remove its equipment from the intersection.

Mayor Gary Phillips said he’s always believed the city should have either a whole bunch of cameras or none. He said their five-year test of the two red-light cameras has proved they aren’t worth the effort and small revenue received once the county and state take their fees.

“It was causing some consternation in the community and it didn’t seem that it was terribly effective,” Phillips said.

The cameras were used to issue 2,313 citations in 2012, the last date for which data are available. A total of 3,195 citations were issued in 2011 and 4,221 were given out in 2010, according to the police department. The city doesn’t receive a breakdown from the county courts system on how much each camera nets in revenue as it’s part of a lump vehicle code fine summary, but the city’s vehicle code fine revenue jumped from $447,067 in 2010 to $533,426 in 2011. It has since dropped to $383,666 in 2013.

Red-light cameras have been a controversial issue around the state and country. Critics have focused on the price of tickets, which costs a minimum of $489, two-thirds of which goes toward state and county fees; motorists being cited for “rolling” right turns; private companies benefiting financially from citations and the reliability of evidence from a camera instead of a police officer.

San Rafael traffic attorney John Stanko said when people receive a red-light ticket, they’re ushered in and out of the courtroom without any sort of trial or real discussion.

“The machines are in my opinion denying us due process,” Stanko said. “When you get into a case like this, how can you say I ran that red light when you weren’t there to see it? How do we know it wasn’t enhanced or modified by companies like Redflex?”

Redflex has been losing contracts ever since it came under fire early last year when news broke the company was being investigated for corrupt business practices, including bribery and secret meetings.

The Chicago Tribune initially reported in late 2012 about the company’s alleged relationship with former Chicago transportation official John Bills. Bills, now under federal investigation over allegations he took bribes to help Redflex spread its cameras throughout Chicago, has denied any wrongdoing. Redflex has said Chicago held its largest North American contract.

Aaron Rosenberg, former Redflex vice president of sales and business development, has said the company gave out bribes such as hotel stays and golf trips to officials in dozens of municipalities in up to 13 states, including California, Arizona and Colorado, to secure contracts for the cameras. He was fired by the company last year.

San Rafael officials said no such bribery has taken place in the city, and the company’s alleged transgressions didn’t play much of a role in the decision to part ways with the red-light cameras.

“We were aware of what had been reported, and that might have been a small factor, like 5 percent of the decision,” Phillips said. “It was more the chief’s decision than mine, and her assessment.”

Several Bay Area and Southern California cities are ending their red-light camera programs, including Hayward, Belmont and San Diego. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the number of cities nationwide using red light cameras has decreased from a peak of 540 in 2012, to 508 in 2014.

But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been supporters of red-light programs.

A report released May 2012 by the Marin County Civil Grand Jury supported the cameras, finding the number of traffic accidents decreased at both camera locations. It cited San Rafael police statistics indicating accidents decreased 12 percent in the program’s first fiscal year of operation at the two intersections.

Copyright 2014 The Marin Independent Journal