Red light cameras court controversy


By Sandy Brundage

Almanac Staff Writer

Drivers tagged by Menlo Park's four red light cameras during the past year may want to keep an eye on the latest court rulings.

Menlo Park's contract with Arizona-based Redflex Traffic Systems contains a "cost neutrality" clause that has been ruled illegal in other jurisdictions. The appellate division of Orange County Superior Court overturned a conviction in 2008; last year the same happened in San Mateo County.

The presiding appellate judge of San Mateo County Superior Court agreed. In a terse, one-word ruling, Judge Mark Forcum stamped, "Reversed," overturning a driver's 2009 conviction for turning right on red without first coming to a stop.

That kicked off a winning trend for attorney Frank Iwama, who represented the driver. The former state deputy attorney general said he's won 18 of 18 red-light ticket cases -- several originating in Menlo Park -- with two initial losses overturned on appeal. He challenged the idea that the cameras primarily stop red-light runners.

"Truth be told, 90 percent of these red-light camera tickets are not straight through running the light; they're right turns," Mr. Iwama said. "Usually in California you're entitled to make a right turn on red. But slow down to next to nothing, and cross that white line -- I'm not condoning it, but you get hit by a $500 fine, it goes on your DMV record, and your insurance."

A San Mateo County grand jury report released in June estimated Menlo Park's average monthly income as $94,500 from red-light camera citations, although a city staff report indicates the number of citations has been on the decline since June 2009.

"It's fairly clear it's for money," Mr. Iwama said. "It's a nice revenue flow for the city. But if that's the case, why don't they just say that up front? Five hundred dollars, for some families that's one month of food."

California's vehicle code specifically states that compensation to a company like Redflex can't be based on the number of citations issued. A "cost neutrality" clause like Menlo Park's saves the city from paying Redflex's $5,000 to $6,000 monthly fee per camera if the revenue from the number of citations issued doesn't cover the cost. In other words, Redflex loses money if the number of citations falls below a certain number.

"For whatever reason Menlo Park has the attitude that they don't have to change the contract," said Mr. Iwama. San Mateo and San Carlos deleted that clause from their Redflex contracts. Menlo Park City Attorney Bill McClure said there's no need for Menlo Park to follow suit. "Our contract language is different, and we believe ours is legally correct."

Mr. McClure explained that in Menlo Park, payments to Redflex are only deferred if revenue does not cover the fees. "It's not about 'not paying,' it's about when the money will be paid," he said.

Red light cameras have created other controversies in court. Another Orange County case was overturned in May when the appellate court ruled that the camera's photos and videos were inadmissible hearsay evidence. This poses a question: Why do red-light camera photos fall into a different legal category than surveillance camera photos, such as those taken at ATMs or convenience stores?

Mr. Iwama suggested the answer lies within the automated nature of the red-light cameras. "Usually there's a live person who can testify, 'Yes, this is the equipment, I had it installed, it's in good shape.' They may not see the actual break-in, but they can vouch for the equipment and lay a foundation for the evidence," he said. "But with red-light cameras, nobody saw the violation other than the equipment. The people who can vouch for the equipment aren't here, they're in Arizona."

Redflex's contract with Menlo Park specifies the company is responsible for all maintenance and troubleshooting. The company monitors all of its cameras remotely, relying on the system to indicate knockdowns, power outages, or communications issues, according to Shoba Vaitheeswaran, director of communications at Redflex.

Mr. McClure, Menlo Park's city attorney, weighed in on the recent court rulings, after his office participated in a conclave with Redflex on June 29. "One could say that bad facts make bad law," he said.

Mr. McClure believes the Orange County court is "just wrong in its decision." The difference between the Orange County case and local cases, he said, boils down to whether the officer testifying in court is qualified to answer questions about the citation and how the camera system works.

"The problem with the officer testimony that was present in the Orange County case is not present in Menlo Park's cases," he said, explaining that Menlo Park officers who testify have personally reviewed the evidence and know how the technology works.

However, Mr. Iwama took issue with that statement, having just gotten a red-light ticket dismissed in part because the Menlo Park police officer read from a script while testifying, and was unprepared to answer questions without it. Menlo Park and Santa Ana, where the Orange County hearsay case originated, both contract with Redflex, he said, and follow the same procedures.

Mr. McClure cited other cases where photographs and videos are not hearsay, as with surveillance photos, and only need to be authenticated by a police officer to count as evidence. Redflex, along with several cities, have asked the Orange County Superior Court to de-publish the case, which would mean attorneys could no longer cite the case as precedent.

"It is worth noting that the [Orange County defendant did not assert innocence or claim that he did not run a red light," Mr. McClure said. "The purpose of the cameras is and continues to be to ticket people running red lights in an effort to change behavior to make intersections more safe for other drivers obeying traffic signals."

The Menlo Park Police Department is currently compiling data to evaluate how the red-light cameras are affecting safety at those intersections.

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Like this comment
Posted by DJ
a resident of another community
on Jul 14, 2010 at 10:11 pm

The majority of the dough comes from nitpicking right turns. Studies have shown that right turns in general are very safe, responsible for a tiny fraction of all accidents, and that right turns on red are statistically no worse than right turns on green. Yet these movements get the same stiff fine as blasting straight through a red light. This is fair?

Even the smaller number of straight-throughs don't bear close scruitiny. The out-of-state camera operators like to show spectacular videos of cars blowing through lights several seconds late, at speed. It's pretty obvious that the cameras won't (and didn't) stop these drivers, who apparently just didn't notice the lights either due to distraction or impairment. After the right turns (80-90% of all tickets), the majority of the rest are for cars going through the red just a few tenths of a second late. Doubtless a few are aggressive drivers trying to make the light, but it's more likely they're just people caught in the dilemma zone, an area of time and space where it's unclear whether to go through or try to stop. At most lights, including all camera-enforced lights, yellow times are set to the bare legal minimum. The times are based on a formula with an assumed reaction time of 1 second and an assumed braking rate of 10 feet-per-second-squared. Studies since the 1970s have shown that a significant number of drivers just aren't willing to do hard breaking for a non-emergency, and these drivers are the ones who get caught with the dilemma. At 8-feet-per-second squared virtually everyone is willing to stop, whereas beyond 13 no one is. In effect, engineers have set the yellow light timing knowing a certain percentage of drivers will miss it and go through slightly after the red onset time. This was deemed safe enough, and probably is from a collision-risk standpoint. Unfortunately, it's not safe from robocop.

Like this comment
Posted by Ian
a resident of another community
on Jul 15, 2010 at 10:40 am


Studies have shown that runing a red light on a right turn is generally safe? Please let us know where these expert studies are so we can all read them! To infer that traffic engineers are setting up yellow times to ensure that a number of people run the light and therefore generate revenue is just plain wrong and if that were the case then we would not have budget deficits in the cities in CA.

If not stopping before turning right is safe then lets change the law. Please dont make accusations towards hard working engineers who only have the welfare of motorists in mind and utilize practices and statistical data set by national standards.

Like this comment
Posted by DJ
a resident of another community
on Jul 15, 2010 at 12:06 pm

I refer you to Fleck and Yee 2002 for the DPT. They did not say that people shouldn't stop, only that red light right turns are no more dangerous than right turns generally. I did not claim more than that, if you re-read my statement carefully. However, I'll note that the data used by Fleck and Yee include the existing level of right-on-red compliance, which we all know is poor.
Re. changing the law, I refer you to AB909 (Jerry Hill), which prior to June of this year would have outright legalized right-on-red after yielding only. Clearly, at least a few people think the practice isn't that dangerous, or certainly that it's not worthy of the same $446 fine levied for a straight-through run.
I can cite any other studies your interested in. In particular Olson and Rothery 1972 regarding the willingness of motorists to undergo hard braking, or a more recent 2006 UK study confirming that nothing's changed. I can provide you with the 1985 ITE papers recommending the current yellow timings be set with 10 fps/sec decel as the standard. If you compare that to the other studies you realize that they know this standard will mean a certain percentage of motorists will be late through the red light, and, apparently, consider it safe enough. Engineers do things like this because they're trying to balance maximization of traffic flow. It's only when you introduce automated nitpicking that (political) problems arise.

Like this comment
Posted by DJ
a resident of another community
on Jul 15, 2010 at 2:16 pm

BTW nowhere did I claim that engineers aren't concerned with safety. They're balancing safety with throughput, though, and they have well-proven formulas for yellow timings that doubtless do this. The fact that these formulas are a bit aggressive w.r.t. vehicle braking hasn't been an issue, because, apparently, it doesn't compromise safety. But what it does do is make it difficult for a lot of folks to avoid getting ticketed by the new automated enforcement systems. If safety was the only concern, why not simply use a longer yellow, and trade off some throughput? Studies, as well as actual field experience, show that the violation rates plunge if you do this. In Georgia, where they've mandated yellows be a full second longer than the ITE minimum at any camera intersection, violations dropped 50-80%. There's no data on what happened to throughput. Surely you see the point here - if you're going to nitpick the imperfect human beings who operate motor vehicles, then you should move the tolerances sufficiently so that almost all of them have a decent chance. Olson and Rothery's old but not outdated study showed virtually 100% compliance if an 8 fps/sec decel is required, and very poor compliance for 13 fps/sec or more. The ITE split the difference in 1985.
Re. the right-on-red issue, the question is, what's the goal? Fleck, who's a camera proponent, in the 2002 paper shows (with links to numerous other studies) that right turns on red are statistically no more dangerous than right turns on green. That's at the *existing* level of compliance. So, what are we going to accomplish by aggressively ticketing sloppy rights? Can we drive compliance up to the point where right turns on red are safer than on greens?!? Or is it more likely that the real motive is money?

Like this comment
Posted by Will Wonders Never Cease?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 15, 2010 at 9:54 pm

"Or is it more likely that the real motive is money?"

OMG: Politicans motivated by money?
Say it ain't true!

Like this comment
Posted by TB
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 16, 2010 at 12:33 pm

I was nailed once by a camera in the City as I was lost and reading addresses. I don't know about other folks but I don't push running late yellows in general and especially not in camera zones. If safety isn't enough of a priority, perhaps getting hit in the pocket book is.

I'd like to see a similar type of system set up for crosswalks. If municipalities really want to make some money, they should ticket drivers who blow through crosswalks when pedestrians are crossing. That would take care of MP's budget issues in a matter of months...

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Posted by Alan Miller
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jul 16, 2010 at 12:54 pm

It's true the system needs to be adjusted and improved over time as we discover its limitations. However, I have to support the effort for automated ticketing because it improves safety and lowers police costs. I regularly have to brake when I start out of a light turning green because someone is running a red light and risking running into me.

Like this comment
Posted by Gunther Steinberg
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Jul 16, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Police and the Courts have tried to solve their funding problems with increasing ticket volume and costs. Much of it is nitpicking. Even the Federal magistrate is not above it. When I was ticketed at the VAPAHCS on a full parking area for "parking between two cars", the Magistrate's office never responded to mailed evidence of the event, when a medical procedure appointment precluded my attending in person.
They just saw to it that the fine was added to my registration cost.
-It was to park there,as I did, out of the way, or cancel my VA appointment. The VA complains that 17,000 appointments are not kept in a period. lack of parking?? They have tried to help for Bldg. 100, but there is no help for Bldg.5

Like this comment
Posted by Gunther Steinberg
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Jul 16, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Lend your voice to the bill in the legislature which would convert mostSTOP sign to YIELD signs, making California Stops legal.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 16, 2010 at 3:27 pm

If the police would ticket drivers who don't use their turn signals MP and every other municipality would have an excess of funds.

Like this comment
Posted by Concerned Motorist
a resident of another community
on Jul 21, 2010 at 5:30 am

While the various studies out there make the case that right on red is not any more dangerous than right on green, they fail to take into account the danger to pedestrians or cyclists. I think that needs to be studied before a true safety conclusion for right on red is made.

Not all communities focus on fiscal return for these programs. There are quite a few that only focus on safety and set up their programs to follow all of the required guidelines and laws, even at times going so far as to taking extra steps to validate it as purely a safety program, such as increasing yellow phase times beyond the standard, incorporating other forms of signage, warning lights, etc, and/or setting a red time delay before the system goes into enforcement mode that allows motorists to clear the intersection if they do get caught in a close call between a yellow and red light.

If done correctly, these programs have proven to reduce the dangerous t-bone accidents by making drivers think about what they’re doing. Knowing a program is in effect can actually be a major deterrent to careless driving, which is ultimately the real problem. Unfortunately too many programs out there are being run the wrong way.

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Posted by Harry
a resident of another community
on Nov 25, 2010 at 11:14 am

Mr. Allen Miller I question the validity of the comment "I regularly have to brake when I start out of a light turning green" I have been driving for 31 years 5 of it professionally on the city streets of L. A. and orange county at 70,000 miles per year. Maybe once or twice in this time have I had to apply my brakes after beginning to proceed through an intersection when a light turned from red to green.

Like this comment
Posted by Harry
a resident of another community
on Nov 25, 2010 at 11:18 am

You may want to check out the National Motorist's Assoiation position concerning photo enforcement systems at--- Web Link

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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