Red light runners in Berkeley should prepare to smile as they illegally cross intersections this June when the city implements its new red light camera system.
The technology has sparked disputes between motorist rights groups and safety advocates around the country, but in Berkeley, the chief concern is over a contract the city signed giving the camera manufacturer, Transol USA, a cut of every traffic ticket meted out.
At its last meeting of 2003 the City Council voted unanimously to install red light cameras at the intersections of Adeline Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, University Avenue and Sixth Street and University and Shattuck avenues. In return for paying to install the cameras and operate the system, Transol is to receive $48 of every ticket collected. Red light tickets cost offenders $321, of which Berkeley, under its agreement with Transol, would receive $161.
The council vote came two weeks before a state law went into effect prohibiting future contracts that gave red light camera manufacturers a portion of ticket revenues.
Berkeley couldn’t afford red light cameras if it had to either buy or lease the equipment and operate it, according to a city report from City Manager Phil Kamlarz.
State lawmakers prohibited cities from signing future deals giving camera manufacturers a cut of ticket revenue out of concern that the arrangement gave them both financial incentive to ticket as many motorists as possible. In California two local governments which also gave camera manufacturers a cut of ticket revenues suspended operations after findings that the cameras were untrustworthy and unreliable.
San Diego suspended its program on June 1, 2001 after a judge threw out 300 tickets on grounds that the manufacturer Affiliated Computer Systems had failed to maintain the cameras to the point that the pictures were not admissible as evidence. In April 2002, the city and county of Sacramento suspended its program also run by ACS for discrepancies between the manual ACS prepared and the actual functioning of the system. Later an appellate panel of Sacramento Superior Court threw out a red light violation on grounds that ACS maintenance logs failed to show that the cameras functioned properly.
A 2002 state audit on red light cameras warned local governments that giving manufacturers a share of ticket revenue might become an incentive for vendors to maximize the number of citations “and create a poor perception of the red light camera program by the public.” As of 2002, 20 local governments in California employed red light cameras.
“Most of the vendors have switched over or are in the process of going to a flat fee to avoid the appearance of conflict, “ said Judith Stone, President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a proponent of red light cameras.
With the cameras nearly installed, city officials say their system will be fair to motorists. “We have clear and precise rules for what constitutes a valid red light violation and these are the rules which every potential violation is filtered through, and even then only a qualified police officer makes the decision to approve or reject a case,” wrote Hamid Mostowfi, Berkeley’s supervising transit engineer in an interview conducted via e-mail.
Mostowfi said that, unlike in San Diego where the red light camera system was connected through traffic signal controllers, Berkeley’s camera system will have no connection to the signal controller and thus can’t affect signal operation.
Under Berkeley’s system, Transol representatives will review red light camera photos and forward apparent violations to Berkeley police for additional study.
Lt. Bruce Agnew of the BPD said that three police officers will be responsible for reviewing the photos. Only cases where pictures clearly identify the driver’s face and the license plate number will be admissible, he said. Agnew added that anyone who receives a ticket in the mail will be invited to come to police headquarters to view the series of still photos of the incident.
“They can then make up their mind whether it’s worth contesting,” he said.
On intersections marked with crosswalks, state law defines running a red light as failing to cross the outer edge of the outermost crosswalk line when the light turns red. If any portion of the car crosses that line while the light is yellow, there is no violation.
Agnew said Berkeley police primarily focus on pedestrian right-of-way and speeding enforcement. Berkeley anticipates that the cameras will generate between 90 and 100 tickets a month at each of the three intersections. At $161 per ticket, Berkeley would take in roughly $550,000 a year from the cameras.
“I would have looked a lot more carefully at this type of program in our community,” said Councilmember Max Anderson, who wasn’t on the council for the 2003 vote. “I’m not a big fan of surveillance cameras.”
Asked if the cameras could detect anything other than red light violations, Mostowfi, replied, “Not at this time”. He added that in accordance with the new state law that seeks to secure the privacy of the driver, Berkeley would shred red light camera photos within six months.
The five-year contract with Transol offers the city an option to end the program once a year or to expand it to more intersections. To meet the state-mandated 30-day notice period before launching the program, Mostowfi said the city will begin media announcements and issue warning letters to offenders rather than tickets for the first 30 days the cameras are in operation.
Transol, an Austrialian-based company, is a relatively new entrant to the California market for red light cameras. There are no reports that judges or municipalities have shut down their systems.
Councilmember Kriss Worthington defended the council’s approval of the cameras. “I see it as a safety thing,” he said. “If people see a higher chance of getting a ticket, they will run fewer red lights and it will be safer for pedestrians and other drivers.”
Red light cameras have had mixed safety benefits, depending on the study. In Oxnard, Calif., broadside accidents—the type most associated with motorists running red lights—decreased by 32 percent, according to a 2001 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a supporter of red light cameras. According to the state audit, a San Diego report, using data from 1995 through 2001, found that red light violations in the county decreased by 20 percent to 24 percent, but rear-end collisions increased by 37 percent. The report assumed that rear collision rates would decrease over time as drivers became more accustomed to the lights.
For drivers weary of the new technology, online merchant Phantom Plate offers a spray it claims makes license plates highly reflective and unreadable when the camera flashes. According to the state audit, of seven local governments reviewed, they enforced only 23 percent of violations because of the difficulty of obtaining clear photographs.ª