CALIFORNIA – California has the most expensive red-light camera tickets in the world – the fine is so steep that one camera in Oakland generates more than $3 million a year – and a Fremont man is launching a protest group to do something about that.
If Roger Jones has his way, that freezing dread that knifes through a driver the moment he sees the overhead flash of a traffic camera will become a thing of the past.
But he’s facing quite an uphill fight against officials hungry for the cash the cameras sweep in and police who are convinced they make the roads safer.
Anyone in California snapped violating a red light pays a fine of $480, and according to the traffic-watch site TheNewspaper.com, no other jurisdiction anywhere has a tab that high. The second-highest fine in the United States is $250, and it is usually more like $100.
The Legislature passed two bills in the past two years that would have reduced the fine or limited the cameras’ use, but both were vetoed. When he killed the most recent measure, Gov. Jerry Brown said the matter should be left to local jurisdictions.
The state Department of Finance has estimated that red-light cameras bring in more than $80 million annually to the state and $50 million to cities and counties – and that, Jones and his supporters say, is the real reason they continue to snap away at motorists.
Not all $480 from each ticket goes to the cities or counties that authorize the cameras – more than half goes to the state or to the companies that run the devices. And not all tickets result in convictions.
But the haul is still out of proportion to the overall set of offenses, critics say. And so even though the fine for running a red light is the same whether a camera or a live police officer generates it, the cameras draw the fire because they can issue far more tickets than a single cop sitting at an intersection.
“Is there a limit to how much ‘gotcha government’ we have to put up with?” asked Jones, 62, a retired distribution manager who began crusading against red-light cameras after he got a ticket from one in 2009. “Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.”
His newly formed organization, the Red Light Camera Protest Group, picketed at Mowry Avenue and Fremont Boulevard in Fremont on Saturday, waving signs to approving honks from several motorists. It was their first protest, and the two dozen who participated plan more in the coming months – all calling for the elimination of red-light cameras and a reduction in the fine.
“I think we’d all be better off without them,” Jones said. “There are better ways to address the problem.”
His foremost suggestion is to increase yellow-light durations, giving people more time to stop safely – and to avoid tickets.
After he pushed the city of Fremont in 2010 to tack 0.7 of a second onto the yellow light at Mission Boulevard and Mojave Drive, pushing it to five seconds, the city noted a 62 percent drop in red-light camera tickets there.
Jones and other camera foes also insist that rolling a red light on a right turn, also known as making a “Hollywood stop,” is not as dangerous as other violations – even though the vast majority of tickets given by most red-light cameras are for that violation.
One recent study in South San Francisco, cited in the Legislature during a 2010 debate over the issue, found that 98 percent of its tickets at one red-light camera were for rolling right turns.
Few oppose the usefulness of any device, including cameras, for reducing the number of people who blow straight through red lights. But that’s not the main issue, camera foes say.
A study last year by Safer Streets L.A., a community group opposed to traffic cameras, found that of the 56,000 annual accidents in Los Angeles, fewer than 100 are caused by rolling right turns.
Law enforcement officers have a sharply different view of the topic.
City of Newark studies found that collisions at the intersections overseen by its five cameras since 2006 dropped by half – from 46 in the four years before the installations to 23 in the four years afterward.
And in Fremont, where Jones lives, police studies concluded that the city’s 10 cameras contributed significantly to a 40 percent drop in intersection accidents between 1995 and 2009. The cameras were installed in 2000.
“This is not a big moneymaker for us,” said Fremont police Sgt. Mark Riggs, who helps oversee the red-light camera program. The annual take for the city is about $250,000, after all the other parties get their cut, he said.
“It’s about safety,” Riggs said. “The big thing for us is aiming for a reduction in accidents.
“As far as the price is concerned,” he added, “we have nothing to do with that. We are simply about safety.”
As for “Hollywood stops” – he insisted they are vehicular dynamite.
“The right turn on a red is a very dangerous move, especially when the driver is looking to the left and the pedestrian is on the right,” Riggs said. “We investigate a lot of accidents like that, and they are bad.”
Lots of bucks
Despite the safety question, the price of the ticket, and the money it drags in, sticks most in the craw of those who hate red-light cameras.
Opponents consider it a form of regressive tax. The $480 tab consists of a base fine of $100, with extra fees tacked on by the Legislature to help pay for maintaining courthouses, jails, courts and emergency services.
Unlike most taxes and fees, it takes only a majority vote of the Legislature to add such charges. Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, authored a bill that would have cut the ticket in half for rolling a red light, but then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it, saying reducing the fine would send the wrong message to drivers about traffic safety.
State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, took a cut at the issue last year, writing a bill to prohibit use of the camera tickets merely to raise revenue, and to make it easier to fight them in court. That’s the bill Brown vetoed in October.
“There are accuracy issues, privacy issues and due process issues with these tickets,” Simitian said. “The trouble is that more and more cities depend on this for revenue.”
He stops short of saying red-light cameras should be eliminated, saying they do have a safety value. “I just don’t think the current system gives the public a fair shake,” he said.
Brown’s press secretary, Gil Duran, said the veto was not about money.
“Running a red light can cost lives,” he said in an e-mail. “The fine is cheap by comparison.”
The sums hauled in by some of the red-light cameras in the 14 Bay Area cities that use them are anything but paltry.
The highest, apparently, is in Oakland at the on-ramp to Interstate 980 at 27th Street and Northgate Avenue.
In 2010, the most recent year for which city figures were available, 9,273 tickets were issued there through violation pictures – worth a gross of $4.2 million, based on the 2010 red-light ticket fine of $450. Figures available for much of 2011 put the gross worth at more than $3 million.
Ken Germann, a 65-year-old teacher who lives in Oakland, knew he was in trouble, and probably out a few bucks, the second he saw the dreaded red-light camera light flash at that intersection one day in December. But then he pulled over, watched two other cars get flashed right after him – and he got mad.
He got even madder when he found out how much the ticket fine is.
“I stopped full, and so did the others, and the camera snapped me anyway,” he said last week as he stood in line at the Alameda County courthouse to book a trial date, traffic ticket in hand. “These things must just be there to make money.”
Ticketing the family
Halfway down the block on 27th from the light, Phuong Nguyen works at MP Flowers and sees the camera light flicker all day. She shook her fist in its direction.
“Three members of my family got tickets at that light in the past month while driving to work,” she said. “Lot of money for the government, not such a good idea for the rest of us.”
Jessica Lubnieski, 27, lives a few blocks north of the light, though, and says she is grateful for it.
“I walk my dog this route all the time, and people go flying through that light when they turn,” she said as she strolled by the intersection with Cooper, her mutt. “They so often don’t even see us.
“I just have to think that camera makes people more careful.”
$480 Current fine for violating a red light in California.
$80 million Paid annually to state.
$50 million Fines paid annually to cities and counties.
$4.2 million Amount generated in 2010 by one camera near the on-ramp to Interstate 980 at 27th Street and Northgate Avenue in Oakland.