Editorial: Red-light cameras contract reveal programs are more about making money than making roads safe

Bob Filner was probably San Diego’s worst mayor, driven from office by embarrassing revelations of chronic sexual harassment. But he did accomplish at least one thing in his short, scandal-ridden career. He ended the city’s red-light camera program in 2013, noting its potentially deleterious effect on tourism.

“Here’s the welcome that we give to San Diego,” Filner told the U-T San Diego newspaper at the time. “Here’s a $500 fine. I don’t think that’s the way to tell visitors, ‘Thank you for coming to San Diego.’ ”

In so doing, Filner acknowledged what many California drivers long have suspected about the recent public safety trend: Those cameras mounted at thousands of intersections are more about raising money for cash-strapped agencies and profits for an out-of-state company than saving lives.

A story by Bee reporter Tony Bizjak on Sunday uncovered how officials at Redflex Traffic Systems, an Australian based red-light camera company with U.S. headquarters in Arizona, picked up meal tabs for Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol officers. Then those officers recommended the county give Redflex a contract worth $11.8 million instead of competitors.

It probably wasn’t illegal, and it wasn’t lavish – dinners at Red Robin, not the Ritz – but that Redflex paid for 250 meals over five years reveals how lucrative the red-light camera is. Those dinners were nothing next to the charges in the indictments last year of the company’s former top U.S. executives who allegedly bribed Chicago officials $2 million to keep that city’s red-light camera contract.

The use of red-light cameras exploded about 10 years ago, according to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which supports their use. It was the perfect pitch to cash-strapped local governments: Make millions of dollars each year while making your streets safer.

Approximately 500 U.S. cities use photo enforcement of intersections now, although the use is on the wane. That’s especially true in California, where about 100 cities and counties enthusiastically adopted red-light cameras in the last decade. Now less than half that number maintain red-light cameras.

One reason for the downturn is motorist outrage. While the typical photo enforcement ticket outside of California is $100, the cost here for running a red light or committing a right-turn violation is $490. Plus, you get a point on your driving record, which can mean thousands more spent on car insurance until that point goes away. That’s abusively high for something that could be as minor as a slow, rolling right turn in an empty, predawn intersection.

If there were hard evidence of lives saved, the cost might not seem so offensive. There isn’t. What we do have is evidence that these programs were intended to be cash cows.

In fact, failure to pay out is why the city of Los Angeles dumped the program in 2011, though that was exacerbated by the announcement that the L.A. Superior Court would not pursue people who didn’t pay the fines. More recently Oakland, San Rafael and Hayward dumped their red-light camera programs. Modesto put its on hiatus in May because it couldn’t afford the staff to review the photos from the cameras. Ventura last week rejected a contract renewal with Redflex because the program isn’t producing the revenue needed to pay off the debt to Redflex.

The data are murky about the effectiveness of the cameras. A report by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration looked at a host of studies on red-light cameras. Some found significant reductions in crashes; some found no change. Others found that installing the cameras exchanged one type of accident, right-angle collisions, with another, rear-end crashes by people slamming on brakes.

What is certain is that red-light cameras are a massive redistribution of wealth, from the pockets of drivers into the coffers of government and out-of-state companies. The revelations about Redflex’s actions to win a contract should prompt Sacramento officials to re-evaluate whether they could achieve the same goal by extending yellow lights at dangerous intersections without having to pick the public’s pockets.

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