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Red-light cameras have serious flaws, grand jury reveals

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Red Light Cameras at Highways  29 and 121
THURSDAY - AUGUST 05, 2010 - NAPA, CA - One of the red light cameras at the intersection of Highways 29 and 121, south of Napa. Some motorists claim the yellow light is too short for the speed of travel. J.L. Sousa/Register

A Napa County grand jury report released last week finds fault with the city’s red-light camera program on various fronts, calling for a moratorium on tickets for violations at the Highway 121/Highway 29 right-turn lane and refunds for some drivers previously cited.

It also questions whether the cameras are really effective at reducing accident rates, which police say is the goal of the program.

The Napa County grand jury selected the red-light cameras for one of several planned 2010-11 reports after it received a complaint letter from a citizen about the program, said jury forewoman Judith Bernat.

The jury also found the cameras have become a hot topic state and nationwide.

“I think people are most alarmed about it because it feels like a money generator, it feels like a tax,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like a safety measure.”

Jurors spent six months researching and collecting statistics about the program, then compiling the report.

Compared to the city’s other three red-light camera intersections, they found an alarming rate of right-turn violations at highways 29 and 121 since cameras were installed there in May  2009.

Between May 29, 2009 and Sept. 30, 2010, the cameras caught 538 right-turn violations at First and Jefferson streets, compared to 2,181 instances of drivers cruising straight through the downtown intersection on a red light.

At highways 29 and 121, however, 3,251 people were cited for right-hand violations, compared with 892 straight-through violations in that same time period.

The report points to the timing of the yellow-light interval at the highway right-turn lane as a source of the problem. When the program began, the yellow light for right turns at that intersection lasted 3.2 seconds. Caltrans changed it later to 3.8 seconds.

Last fall, the police department started an informal practice of not giving citations until 5.4 seconds after the light changes from green to yellow. This greatly reduced the number of right-turn citations.

The jury estimates that about 1,000 drivers received tickets in the early months of the 29/121 camera program that would not have been issued if the yellow had been set at 5.4 seconds from the start.

The jury suggests the city give refunds to this group of drivers.

The shifting yellow light intervals are due to confusion about the law, the report says.

“How are drivers expected to comply with the law when the experts responsible for the traffic signal timing and enforcement must incrementally make adjustments to ‘get it right’?” the report asks.

Caltrans determines the timing of the yellow lights, and the city has been in compliance with the law since it set up the cameras, said Napa Police Department Capt. Jeff Troendly. 

But because of the controversy, the police department is giving drivers the full 5.4 seconds for the highway 29/121 intersection right turn, he said.

The grand jury also points out that at 29/121, only one accident involving a driver making a right turn occurred between Jan. 1, 2004 and Dec. 31, 2008.

This shows the cameras have limited benefit to reducing accidents caused by drivers turning right, the jury says.

The jury looked at the city’s accident rates over the past four years and found that they have been steadily declining overall. Most of that decline happened between 2007 and 2008, before the cameras were installed, it says.

Troendly said the department has employed several efforts to reduce accidents. All of those together, including the cameras, have pushed accident rates down, he said.

Though there may not be many right-turn accidents, the cameras are about making drivers aware at every approach to an intersection, he said.

The jury also takes issue with the high cost of the tickets, particularly for the right-turn violations.

The base cost of the ticket is $100, but the ticket price rises to a minimum of $475 with added taxes and fees. This doesn’t include DMV fees, driver training school costs and rising insurance premiums.

The fees added to the base fine have risen steadily over the past four years, the report points out.

The formula used to determine the fees is complex and not well understood even by the officials charged with collecting and distributing fees, the report says.

Only a small portion of the money stays local, while the state collects most of the money.

“Tacking on additional penalties and fees to fund other government functions does not provide transparency,” the report says.

The red-light fines and fees siphon $3.3 million out of the local economy each year, the jury estimates.

The company that runs the camera program, Redflex, is based in Arizona, Bernat added.

“I think we spend way too much money on consultants and companies that are out of state,” she said. “To go out of state doesn’t serve us well. If we don’t take care of us, who will?”

Troendly agrees the fines are too high and says that’s what most people dislike about the red-light cameras.

“I really think it is extremely high and ridiculously high, but we don’t set that,” he said. “We don’t have control over that at all. That is strictly done at the state level.”

The Legislature attempted to pass a bill that would have reduced the fine for right-turn violations, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.

Troendly said he hopes lawmakers will take up the issue again. In the meantime, he said, the fine isn’t reason enough to stop using the cameras.

“The cost of a life or an injury is far more expensive than the cost of the fine, and we’re not in a position to ignore those,” he said.

The city should carefully examine the program as its contract with Redflex lapses, Bernat said. 

“We question its validity, and we certainly want them to halt putting up new ones,” she said.

The city is looking at whether to extend its contract with Redflex when it lapses in July.

But officials will look carefully at the jury’s recommendations as it reviews the program, Troendly said.

“We’re obviously going to consider those things,” he said.

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