The criticisms of Napa’s red light cameras are many, but no one can say they haven’t been phenomenally productive.
In less than 10 months, cameras at two intersections have nabbed 1,847 violators — motorists who sailed through on red lights or came to incomplete stops while turning right.
While the city’s mechanical cops were issuing tickets like gangbusters, flesh-and-blood officers wrote a modest 381 red light tickets in the rest of the city.
It’s no surprise that the cameras are such high achievers, Napa Police Sgt. Tom Pieper said. These unblinking devices work 24/7. They never take a break.
Violators don’t get a break, either. As far as Pieper knows, every one of those 1,847 citations has held up. The photographic evidence is so persuasive that the courts haven’t overturned a single ticket on appeal, he said.
The cameras’ relentless efficiency is only part of the story. Every ticket comes with a fine of about $500, inflicting financial pain on motorists who often resent being nabbed by an unfeeling mechanical device.
Such steep fines have produced “quite a bit of push-back,” Napa Police Chief Rich Melton said last week.
In letters to the editor, motorists have questioned whether the city is using cameras to get rich rather than the professed reason: to reduce accidents.
Mayor Jill Techel, the only vote against installing cameras at a Napa City Council meeting last May, said she was visited by an 80-year-old woman on Social Security who pleaded for financial mercy.
The woman definitely ran the red light, Techel said, but couldn’t afford the $500 penalty.
The city could do nothing for her, Techel said.
Through the courts, the elderly woman was able to arrange to pay in installments, but that wasn’t the ideal solution, Techel said.
Another Napan, Margaret Crotty, who months ago was ticketed for making a right turn without coming to a full stop at Jefferson and First streets, said, “It has such a bad taste, $500 right around Christmastime.”
Crotty noted that she and her husband are living on retirement income. She agrees that motorists who blow red lights are doing a highly dangerous thing, but argues that her cautious right turn was “totally safe.”
“My contention is because I am very respectful of the law, if they would have sent me the picture with a warning, they would have had all the same effect,” she said.
Napa City Manager Mike Parness feels the public’s pain. Early in the city’s experiment with red light cameras, a member of his family got caught by one.
“It is a pretty stiff fine,” Parness said. “It probably exceeds what’s needed to get a change in (motorist) behavior.”
Napa remains committed to red light cameras, but the city is considering a new way to process tickets that could cut the fine in half.
Violations would be processed by the city, not the courts, avoiding the substantial charges imposed by the state.
Parness briefed the City Council on this new approach two weeks ago. Council members said they wanted to learn more.
Chief Melton is supportive.
“The real objective is reducing people running red lights,” he said. “It’s not to extract a large fee. If we can do it without a large fee, that’s what we should do,” especially in these hard economic times.
Steve Bouch, the executive officer for Napa County Superior Court, agrees that fines for red light tickets and many other traffic violations have soared beyond reason.
Napa County imposes fines set by the state’s Uniform Bail Schedule, which is larded with charges imposed by the Legislature for a host of law enforcement-related projects, Bouch said.
The Legislature is using traffic fines to generate revenue so as to avoid raising taxes, Bouch said. “It’s a hidden system that’s under the radar. It’s becoming unfair,” he said.
For low-income people, a $500 fine is a crushing blow, causing them to perhaps miss a rent payment or cut back on food for their families, Bouch said.
If the city processed red light violations in-house, it would use administrative hearing officers for motorists who wanted to appeal.
Such officers are now used for code enforcement hearings.
Under such a system, which a handful of cities are using, fines could be cut nearly in half, Parness said.
Violations would not be reported to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Insurance companies could not use these infractions to bump premiums, Melton said.
Melton said he wants to know more about pulling red light tickets out of the courts.
Should other infractions be brought in-house as well?
How should those who commit multiple red light offenses be handled?
Is it fair that insurance rates not reflect a driver’s poor driving history?
Where the money goes
Even with today’s high fines, the city is not making a financial killing on red light tickets, Sgt. Pieper said.
From May, when the first camera started generating tickets, until January, the city’s share of every $500 ticket — about $150 — totaled $147,000, Pieper said. Redflex Traffic Systems of Phoenix, Ariz., the company that installed and owns the cameras, was paid $93,000.
Some of the remaining $54,000 went for computers, training costs and other expenses, including a part-time California Highway Patrol officer who reviews tickets before they are issued to make sure they meet city standards, Pieper said.
All “profit” from red light cameras will go to traffic safety programs, including bike rodeos, free bike helmets and more drunk driving patrols, Pieper said.
The red light cameras are achieving the results that Redflex promised, Pieper said.
Injury accidents caused by red light runners are down 40 percent citywide — from 30 to 18 — since the cameras went to work.
Given the growing number of distractions that divert a motorist’s attention from the road — cell phones, stereos, computers, eating — this drop in accidents is all the more noteworthy, traffic officer Ray Urbano said.
Critics feared that cameras would cause rear-end accidents as motorists began braking abruptly on yellow lights.
There has been only one such accident at intersections equipped with cameras, Pieper said.
Motorists are wising up and driving more carefully, Pieper said.
Revenue from the cameras at the first two intersections where they were installed, at Jefferson and First streets and at Trancas Street where it meets Big Ranch Road, topped out at $24,000 in September. The figure dropped to $16,000 in January, he said.
That was still enough to cover Redflex’s monthly rental fee of $11,670 for cameras at the two intersections, he said.
If accidents and tickets are both down, that’s a good thing, Pieper said. That means the cameras are having a deterrent effect, he said.
Two new camera sites are coming online. One at the intersection of Soscol and Imola avenues was installed in January.
On Tuesday, it stopped issuing warnings and started issuing citations.
Another camera site, at the T-intersection southwest of town where highways 12, 29 and 121 meet, will go live in the spring.
These two intersections should start strong with citations and not fade as significantly as the first two, Pieper said.
These intersections are used by a higher percentage of non-residents who won’t be familiar with camera locations, he said.
Techel said she still has reservations about a system that equates right-turn violators with straight-through red light runners, which she considers to be a more dangerous group.
About 50 percent of the tickets written at First and Jefferson go to motorists who are making a right turn but do not come to a full stop, Pieper said.
All tickets at Trancas/Big Ranch are for straight-through violations since right turns there are yield-only.
The fact that accidents are down shows that the cameras are a significant plus for public safety, the mayor said.
Many motorists believe the city shorted the duration of yellow lights to lure them into committing red light violations, Techel said.
In fact, the opposite is true.
The city has lengthened each yellow by a fraction of a second, she said.
Councilman Peter Mott said he had heard directly from only one city resident who didn’t like the cameras.
“I think it’s one of those issues, like a new stop light,” Mott said. “People need to get used to the situation and work through it. It will make them better drivers.”
Register reporter Carlos Villatoro contributed to this story.