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Cameras yield questions

Transportation: Some officials think intersection program is unfair due to gray areas

Posted: August 8, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: August 8, 2011 1:55 a.m.
A red-light camera keeps watch on Magic Mountain and McBean parkways. A red-light camera keeps watch on Magic Mountain and McBean parkways.
A red-light camera keeps watch on Magic Mountain and McBean parkways.

Santa Clarita officials say they’ll stand by the city’s red-light camera program, even though Los Angeles recently scuttled a similar system and some say the tickets issued by policing cameras are unfair.

The Los Angeles County Superior Court system does not follow through on tickets issued by the cameras in the same way that it follows through on tickets issued by law-enforcement officers.

Officials and some residents said the difference underscores a fundamental lack of fairness posed by the tickets.

The red-light cameras snap a photo of the driver and the car’s license plate when a vehicle runs a red light. The ticket is mailed to the car’s owner.

Two characteristics of the tickets offer gray areas, experts say: First, the driver never signs the citation, so there’s no explicit promise or agreement to show up in court.

Second, the driver running a red light may not own the vehicle, yet the vehicle’s owner is responsible for the ticket.

 “Issuing a driver’s license hold ... could result in an unfair result where the owner of the vehicle is denied the ability to renew his or her license, even though that person was not the driver of the vehicle at the time the camera captured a person going through a red light,” Superior Court spokeswoman Mary Hearn said in an email.

Results of not paying
Because of those gray areas, the Superior Court does not notify the state Department of Motor Vehicles of unpaid red-light camera tickets unless the motorist has been ordered by a court to pay. Without a report to the DMV, the vehicle owner’s insurance agency would not know about the ticket.

People who don’t follow through on the red-light tickets face penalties, and the court would refer the matter to a county collection agency if the penalties go unpaid.

However, it’s unclear whether the collection agency would be able to report failure to pay the penalties to credit-rating companies.

A spokesman for an insurance agency association said the group is not happy about the Superior Court’s decision on red-light-camera tickets.

 “If you’re letting someone who runs red lights drive your car, your auto insurance company wants to know about that,” said Bob Passmore, a senior director at the National Association of Insurance Agencies.

California is one of only a few states that allows insurance agencies to use red-light camera tickets as a factor when calculating rates, Passmore said. But that doesn’t happen if the court doesn’t pass on the information to the DMV.

That brings up yet another point: Red-light-camera ticket-holders aren’t just victims. They’re most likely lawbreakers.

City: the cameras work
City officials say the bottom line is Santa Clarita’s red-light camera program works.

“The point is not a point of revenue,” Councilman Frank Ferry said. “It’s a point of increasing public safety. ... The city of L.A. might not want the hassle, but we as a council made the decision that those intersections were dangerous.”

Collisions at the seven intersections with red-light cameras are down 18 percent overall since before the cameras were installed. Broadside collisions are down 64 percent.

Those “T-bone” crashes are among the more common and more dangerous types of collisions that occur when someone runs a red light, city traffic engineer Andrew Yi said.

There were 92 broadside collisions from January 2001 to December 2003, a three-year period before the cameras were installed. From January 2007 to December 2009, there were 33 such collisions.

Los Angeles discontinued its red-light camera system in part because it was costing the city money. But City Councilman Bob Kellar said that “confusion” doesn’t apply in Santa Clarita.

 “Those lights were never put in place to be a moneymaker,” Kellar said.

City officials played down any possibility that, enlightened with the knowledge there aren’t straightforward repercussions for failure to pay, red-light runners will crumple up their camera tickets and ignore them.

Local tickets paid
So far, the numbers indicate about three out of every four local red-light-camera ticket holders are paying.

In 2010, 5,793 red-light tickets were issued in the city. That’s about 483 a month.

The tickets are $480. Of that, $150 comes back to the city.

For the 2009-10 fiscal year, the city grossed $680,946 from red-light tickets. That averages $56,745 each month. And, at $150 each, that means about 378 people ticketed each month paid their fines.
The fairness issue
If there aren’t repercussions for not paying, then the tickets are basically voluntary, Santa Clarita resident Lance Gallardo surmised.

He likes the red-light cameras, but he said the fact that some people who are cited never end up paying and face little or no repercussions isn’t fair to the people who are paying.

“There are two similarly situated people,” Gallardo said. “Of the people who ran a red light, you have people who paid and the people who didn’t — the scofflaws who say, ‘I’ve done my research; I don’t have to pay.’

“They’re getting off scot-free. Is it fair to have a system like that? I think that it’s a debate that the city should agendize.”

Gallardo, an attorney who specializes in other areas of law, said cities in Los Angeles County could face a class-action lawsuit from ticket payers.

Councilman Ferry said he expects the council to discuss the issue.

“Clearly, I think this is going to be a point of interest when we come back from hiatus (on Aug. 23), as a result of all the media coverage it’s received,” Ferry said.

To pay, or not to pay — Ferry and others say there’s an easy way not to have to face the choice.

“Just don’t run red lights,” Passmore said.


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