Are cameras for red-light runners working?


The decision of which pedal to pound when the light changes from green to yellow is one that every driver faces, often on a daily basis. Hit the gas? Slam on the brake? Usually it's made in a fraction of a second, its roots obscure and tangled.

Of course, it's also among the most important calls a driver makes. Red light runners cause 260,000 accidents per year in the United States, a calculus that local towns have not escaped. That fact hit home most recently when 6-year-old Menlo Park resident Lisa Xavier was killed in an early afternoon hit-and-run accident in mid-November at the intersection of Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road.

While an array of factors influence driver behavior, Menlo Park is hoping that new red-light cameras will make people think twice before running reds. The city has installed the cameras to catch violators at four local intersections, including the one at which the car Lisa was riding in was struck. One and a half years and some 9,000 citations after the first of those cameras became operational, is the program working?

That will remain an open question, as the city has not established any criteria for evaluating the program. Even if the cameras' presence doesn't succeed in changing the behavior of drivers, it will still provide a windfall for the city of about $300,000 per year, if citations continue at current rates.

While Finance Director Carol Augustine said monthly fine payments have not dropped, there has been a substantial decline in the number of violations detected at the notorious Bayfront/Willow intersection. That number fell 27 percent from the period May through December 2008 to the same time period in 2009, according to statistics provided by Sgt. Sharon Kaufman.

Meanwhile, the frequency of accidents at the intersection has not changed, though the sample size is probably too small to lend much insight. There were 13 accidents at the intersection in the year prior to the installation of the camera, compared with 12 in the following year.

Sgt. Kaufman cautioned that people shouldn't necessarily read the decline in violations as an indicator that the system is working, saying that traffic volume may have fallen in tandem with the economy, among other factors. She uses a simpler and more immediate index: the number of major-injury or fatal accidents.

"Our hope was that by having red-light cameras (at the Bayfront/Willow intersection), that we would significantly reduce or eliminate altogether major-injury or fatality accidents that occur there due to red light violations," she said.

There has been about one such accident at the intersection "almost every year" before the cameras were installed, including the accident that killed Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam in 2007, according to Sgt. Kaufman.

Lisa Xavier's death represented the first at the intersection since the cameras' installation in May 2008. Police believe the responsible driver was racing another vehicle at the time of the crash.

"The driver was involved in an activity that already showed a blatant disregard for public safety," Sgt. Kaufman said. "Running the red light was somewhat of a secondary action."

The lone camera at the intersection did not catch the driver running the light, because it faces in the opposite direction, according to police spokeswoman Nicole Acker.

Some have cited the awkward configuration of the intersection as one cause of accidents. Because Bayfront Expressway is in Caltrans' jurisdiction, Menlo Park can't do much outside of lobbying that to modify the intersection.

In the big picture, changing behavior will require a societal shift, Sgt. Kaufman said. In the meantime, the city will continue to rake in fees from drivers who lay on the gas when the light turns, hoping that the threat of a fine will make them reconsider.

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Posted by Guest
a resident of another community
on Jan 6, 2010 at 1:10 pm

The city could do a lot to reduce red light accidents and "red light running" including reconfiguring intersections and adding 1 second to the yellow. These will not generate profits for the city so they are not discussed by the city. People need to get educated before they vote so they stop voting for the people who are just interested in running the government and not representing the people.

Generating fines simply to make profits for the cities is simply WRONG!

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Posted by Banphotoradar
a resident of another community
on Jan 6, 2010 at 3:29 pm

20 reasons to oppose photo radar:

Web Link

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Posted by Guido Veloce
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 6, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Personally, I'd support public floggings for people who run red lights. It's not a minor thing. People die in these accidents, and for what? So some idiot doesn't have to wait a minute or two for the light to turn green again.

It's a serious public safety risk, and I'd rather my taxpayer dollars go for a red light camera than to pay for an officer to sit at an intersection all day and all night.

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Posted by Alan Miller
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 6, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Having grown up in a smaller community, the driving habits of folks on the Peninsula appear suggestive of a callous disregard for the safety of others, not to mention a wide disrespect for the rule of law. A large percentage of drivers here seem only concerned with getting away with as much as possible, and then artfully complaining when they get caught pushing their luck. The red light camera controversy is a red herring given the driving environment as a whole.

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Posted by Jeremy
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 6, 2010 at 10:55 pm

The cameras - at least the ones downtown - don't seem to work right. Spend a few minutes standing at the intersection of El Camino Real and Ravenswood, and watch the cameras happily photograph nothing in particular when there is no red light violation. I hope people aren't getting tickets for that.

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Posted by Stephen
a resident of another community
on Jan 7, 2010 at 6:56 am

With the problem with RLC is that your typical RLV Crash is PLUS 5 INTO RED. Yet most violations are under a second that a camera cite. Yet when longer yellow lights are put in place the violations disappear. RLC are a SCAM. It is pretty obvious too. Go look at Norcross, GA which DROPPED RLC because the longer yellow light required by HB 77 killed the profits.

RLC were never intended as a safety device. Just using the "safety mantra" to whack people for technical fouls that in this case a longer yellow light WOULD STOP.

But that is something the city and the vendor DONT WANT. They count on having a number of violations per day. One of the many reasons RLC will fail long term.

Don't believe me, than why did 2007 V-Dot show more wrecks (even more t-bones despite the camera in their restate).

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Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jan 7, 2010 at 7:39 am

Stephen -

Perhaps I'm alone with this comment, but I barely understood anything you said and what may be meaningful data is totally lost.

Is there some reason you are using codes and abbreviations that no one knows in your post?


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Posted by translator
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 7, 2010 at 8:39 am

While I'm not any sort of inside expert, I'll try to translate the comment above because it makes some important points. Commenter Stephen appears to be citing information that is widely known, but not much advertised in communities that use the red light cameras. It's true that while the cameras are installed under the guise of safety, they are primarily a huge revenue stream. Most red light accidents don't happen at the very start of a red light, they happen because the driver failed to notice the intersection and blazes through at high speed- a few seconds into the light. The cameras give tickets to people that barely miss the yellow signal- resulting in higher accident rates at these intersections in many cases. People see yellow and learn to slam on the brakes too soon to avoid a ticket. There are communities that couple the cameras with shorter yellow signals to increase profits. When Menlo Park was considering installing them, a city just across the bridge was finalizing some sort of lawsuit for this behavior. It's not surprising that longer yellow lights have a bigger impact on red light violation accidents than cameras do. They give people the chance to slow and stop safely, plus the longer yellow time reminds one that it's time to get stopped asap. I don't think it's ever acceptable to run a red light, not even a nice "fresh" red light, and wouldn't defend the practice. However, it's simplistic to think that increasing tickets in the first moments of a red light really reduces serious accidents- as other cars are certainly not making jack-rabbit starts from their freshly green lights. The cameras are what they are: a new revenue stream for our city. As long as the city plays by the rules and keeps the yellow signals at an acceptable and legal minimum length, I guess we should welcome them. We should also beware of fender benders at those intersections during the yellow signals.

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Posted by Food For Thought
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 7, 2010 at 2:08 pm

A couple of things stand out:

1) The number of accidents at the Willow/Bayfront intersection haven't been reduced since installation of the cameras. That tells you plain-as-day that they aren't working if, as we've been led to believe, this is all about "safety".

2) The cameras are obviously "working" from a revenue enhancement standpoint, however, in the fact that over 9000 citations have been issued, bringing in over $300,000 per year to the city per the article. That's hardly "chump change" and thus our politicans will shamelessly continue to insist it's all about "safety" despite all evidence to the contrary.

3) There is no discussion of the cameras on El Camino - and with good reason, I suspect. Even at the "notoriously dangerous Willow/Bayfront intersection", the total number of accidents per year is stated to be just 12, with just one of those being a major injury accident. I dare say that at the El Camino locations, those figures are much, much lower - probably just a couple of non-injury accidents each year (which, again, may or may not be due to red-light running). And any concerns there could easily be eliminated by adding an extra second to the yellow light as suggested by "Guest" above

Bottom-Line: It's all about the $$$ (as usual).

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Posted by HenryA
a resident of another community
on Jan 7, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Two things not mentioned in the article:

1. In the last 3 months there's been three appeal decisions (Bullock, Lopez, Schmidt) about the cameras in San Mateo County. The appeal dept. thinks that the contracts in Redwood City, Menlo Park, San Mateo, Millbrae, Daly City and South San Francisco are illegal. As a result, if you take your camera ticket all the way to a not guilty trial, it will be dismissed. For more info go to

2. Drivers in California need to know about Snitch Tickets, which are fake/phishing red light camera tickets sent out by some CA police departments to fool the registered owner into ID'ing the actual driver of the car. (Local cities known to be using them are Daly City, Elk Grove, Emeryville, Fairfield, Marysville, Millbrae, Modesto, Newark, Redding, Rocklin, San Leandro, San Mateo, Stockton and Union City.) Snitch Tickets haven't been filed with the court so they don't say "Notice to Appear," don't have the court's address, and say (on the back, in small letters), "Do not contact the court." Since they have NOT been filed with the court, they have no legal weight. You can ignore a Snitch Ticket. If in doubt, Google the term.

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Posted by Simon
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 28, 2010 at 11:55 pm

Does the camera at Ravenswood x El Camino only work for cars on El Camino? I was starting to turn left from Ravenswood onto El Camino when the camera start flashing like crazy. Mine was the only car in the intersection.

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