The Future of Automated Ticketing Machines in California

May 24, 2010

Red Light Camera

Photo courtesy of Yrithinnd

Michael Jennings saw a flash of light as he drove past Main Street on Santa Ana Boulevard on March 12, 2009.  He was driving his 15-year-old daughter to school and remembers accelerating through the intersection to avoid being hit by a driver rapidly approaching from behind.  Weeks later, he was surprised to receive a ticket not from the city of Santa Ana, but from a company called Redflex.  The red light violation was for more than $400 but Jennings said he drove just as safely before receiving the ticket as he did after it arrived.

If Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s automated speed enforcement proposal is accepted for the state’s fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, drivers like Jennings might soon face a ticket for speeding and running a red light.  That’s because Schwarzenegger is hoping to raise $337.9 million by installing speed camera technology at each of the 500 red light cameras already in use across the state.

“If the legislature doesn’t adopt it they will have to find another place to get the money,” said H.D. Palmer, the deputy director for external affairs at the California Department of Finance.

Products claiming to prevent enforcement cameras from reading license plates stand as a roadblock in the way of Schwarzenegger’s plan to raise money through speed cameras.  Two popular products are PhotoBlocker Spray, which overexposes license plates in cameras, and Photo Blur License Plate Shield.  Both products sell for less than $40 and sprays like PhotoBlocker are invisible to the naked eye.  In this state, three sections of the California Vehicle Code prohibit the use of such products.

Photo courtesy of Derek Jensen

“Most state laws require your license plate to be visible to the naked eye,” reads a statement on PhotoBlocker Spray’s Web site.  “They do not, however, require it to be photogenic.”

If products like PhotoBlocker Spray are invisible and actually work, though, revenue for the automated speed enforcement proposal might be far less than the $337.9 million the governor’s office anticipates.

Many commuters like Jennings would welcome the idea of the state finding the money elsewhere.

“Having a camera snapping pictures is impersonal and an invasion of privacy,” Jennings said.  “It annoyed me more than a normal ticket would.”

Linda Chan, a 62-year-old attorney from Emeryville, felt the same way.  Chan got a $436 ticket for rolling through a red light as she was making a right turn.  She admits to not stopping at the crosswalk before making her right turn onto Horton Street from 40th Avenue but was still upset by the violation she describes sarcastically as a heinous crime.

“[The camera] was a huge revenue generator; it was an infringement on safe drivers’ rights,” she said.

Palmer disagreed.

“This is a law enforcement tool,” Palmer said, claiming the enforcement cameras are no different from an officer with a speed gun.  He questioned whether those opposing the cameras would find a motorcycle cop giving a ticket to be an intrusion into drivers’ personal liberties.

Photo courtesy of Bidgee

Safety is often cited as a prime reason California cities study whether red light or stop sign cameras should be installed.  For every study cities and camera vendors produce to show that cameras reduce collisions, activists seeking the cameras’ removal present information showing that rear-end collisions increase at camera intersections, likely as a result of drivers choosing to slam on the brakes rather than drive through an intersection and risk getting an expensive ticket.

Currently, 77 California locations use automated enforcement cameras but Huntington Beach is not one of those places.  Unlike many cities that examine the feasibility of installing red light cameras, Huntington Beach chose not to pursue a contract with Australia-based vendor Redflex.  The city’s police chief, Ken Small, found that one intersection needing four cameras would cost the city $24,000 a month to maintain.

“A lot of the instances where [Redflex] said, ‘Here’s the red light violation,’ it was really too close to call for us,” Small said.  “We’re not willing to write a citation to somebody that misses the limit line by a couple inches or a foot.”

Small noted that many of these violations, including drivers who make a right turn on a red light without stopping, don’t usually lead to traffic accidents.

Even so, American Traffic Solutions Marketing Director Sherri Teille defends cameras that catch right turn red light runners.  “Red means stop regardless of what direction you’re headed,” she said, explaining that drivers making right turns could still hit pedestrians or cyclists.  American Traffic Solutions is an Arizona-based provider of photo enforcement technology with contracts in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Pasadena and other California cities.

Reducing the chances of vehicular collisions with cyclists and pedestrians is the focus of the Mountain Recreation and Conservation Authority, the group in charge of many parks in the Santa Monica Mountains.  Fifteen Redflex stop sign cameras are used at various parks like Franklin Canyon and Topanga State Park.  The group’s spokeswoman, Dash Stolarz, credits the cameras with a huge reduction in rolling stop sign violators and a freeing up of resources: park rangers now have more time to meet other objectives besides giving tickets to drivers.

Photo courtesy of solipsist

At Franklin Canyon, the park was once unable to slow traffic from cars looking for a shortcut on Coldwater Canyon with speed bumps and stop signs.

“Our roads are shared by bicyclists, hikers and dog walkers,” Stolarz said, noting that nothing kept commuters from driving too quickly until installing the cameras in the summer of 2008.  “The program works, it has reduced the amount of people going through stop signs dramatically.”

The contract between the Mountain Recreation and Conservation Authority and Redflex may have helped make the area roads safer, but some contend that the contracts written between cities and vendors are not always legal to begin with.  One of those people is the creator of HighwayRobbery.net, a popular tool for those who want to fight an automatic enforcement camera ticket in California.  The Southern California resident requested anonymity, explaining that the site occasionally receives threatening and violent e-mails.  HighwayRobbery.net has a thorough city-by-city guide on how to beat the tickets; an updated and streamlined guide will be released soon and explain how to fight tickets completely by mail.  The site creator has spent days outside courthouses distributing helpful flyers to those hoping to get a red light camera ticket dismissed.

“The defendants suffer if they don’t know what to do if they make the mistake of trying to handle things in-person they end up in a gigantic line for several hours,” HighwayRobbery.net’s author said.

Kenneth Schmier, a lawyer who has represented people fighting automated camera tickets pro bono, believed it is easy for red light camera ticket fighters to become intimidated by the law.  Based in Emeryville, Schmier is part of a committee trying to stop appellate court judges from withholding from publication selected decisions.  A class-action lawsuit Schmier said, will be filed soon against the camera vendors and the effect could be significant.

“I think the lawsuit could have the effect of bankrupting [the camera companies],” he said, arguing that if cities are forced to give drivers their money back, those areas might then demand money back from the camera companies.

Photo of UK Speed Enforcement -- Courtesy of Arpingstone

Redflex, one of the largest camera vendors in the United States, describes in a release about its earnings for the second half of 2009 that “the increase in the scope and cost of litigation against the company” as well as “the rise of opposition from various groups opposed to photo enforcement” are straining its business.

American Traffic Solutions representative Teille acknowledges the importance of carefully creating contract guidelines to prevent the company from later being ordered to take down its cameras.

“We’re very diligent in our contracting processes,” Teille said.  “We fully understand the laws that are in every state we operate, including California.”

“California has instituted these programs for many years, and as a state, was an early adopter,” writes Shoba Vaitheeswaran, director of communications for Redflex, in an e-mail.  “Legal requirements, ordinances, court systems and fines are all very well set up and the system has been refined over the years.”

Vendors doing business in California may also have trouble negotiating contracts with cities facing a growing number of motorists not paying the full amount of the tickets.  Revenue of red light cameras in Los Angeles, for example, has not met initial expectations as some do not pay the tickets quickly while others prefer completing community service in lieu of the expensive fines.

In Schwarzenegger’s proposal to add speed cameras to all existing red light cameras in California, the ticket fines for a speeding ticket do not reach as high as the red light camera tickets received by Jennings and Chan.  Drivers caught over the speed limit by up to 15 mph would receive a $225 fine while those traveling at least 15 mph above the limit would get a $325 fine.  The state estimates that 60 percent of the violations would be for the “up to 15 mph above the limit” tickets and the other 40 percent for the “at least 15 mph above the limit” tickets.

Although 85 percent of the revenue from the proposed speed cameras would go to the state, the other 15 percent would be given to the cities operating the speed and red light cameras.  It is unclear whether the same revenue problems Los Angeles has faced with red light cameras will affect the governor’s speed camera plans to address California’s ongoing budget crisis.

For more news coverage on red light and speed enforcement cameras, go to TheNewspaper.com.


One comment

  1. The people of California better grow some balls and fight back. Next they will be selling your kidneys to the Chinese. Get organized and start a ballot initiative to vote out the cameras. Come see us at camerafraud.com

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