Menlo Park: Red-light cameras: Debate over data, costs, benefit | August 28, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - August 28, 2013

Menlo Park: Red-light cameras: Debate over data, costs, benefit

by Sandy Brundage

Faced with a clock ticking past midnight and a still-lengthy agenda, the Menlo Park City Council opted on Aug. 20 to continue the discussion of whether to cancel or expand the city's red-light camera program to its next meeting, on Aug. 27.

The council did take public comments, however, given that several people had waited hours to speak on the topic. The council also gave staff some homework.

The proposed contract would renew an agreement with Redflex to operate the cameras for five years for $1.7 million and add a fifth camera to Menlo Park.

The city now has four red-light cameras, mounted at Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road, and the intersections of El Camino Real with Glenwood Avenue and Ravenswood Avenue. Another would be added at the intersection of Bayfront Expressway and Chilco Street.

Sgt. Sharon Kaufman of the Menlo Park Police Department showed four video clips of near-collisions at the monitored intersections. One public speaker, Roger Jones, said her presentation proved only that the cameras don't prevent infractions — they just film them.

Councilwoman Cat Carlton noted that the cost of the proposed contract was more expensive than she'd seen in other California cities.

"We're not getting a great deal there," she said. The contract would also require a 4/5 vote by the council to cancel it, something she suggested the city re-think. "That's not OK." Typically a simple majority vote suffices.

Some public speakers argued for lengthening the yellow light by fractions of a second at the intersections as a more effective, less expensive alternative.

Sgt. Kaufman suggested that longer yellow lights would throw off signal synchronization and encourage drivers to try to beat the red light at following intersections.

An analysis released to the news media on Aug. 19 by Safer Streets L.A., a grassroots coalition advocating for "scientifically sound and sensible transportation and traffic laws," suggested that Menlo Park's cameras were installed at intersections that did not have a significant number of collisions to start with.

Statistics per intersection compiled by the police department showed zero accidents at El Camino Real and Glenwood Avenue that were attributable to running a red light, one at El Camino Real and Ravenswood Avenue, and six at Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road during the two years prior to installing the cameras in 2008.

After the cameras were installed, the data shows two to three accidents resulting from red-light violations at the Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road intersection, and none at the other locations.

The intersection of Chilco Street and Bayfront Expressway had one fatal collision, in 2011, and a total of 20 collisions during the past five years. The staff report did not differentiate what proportion of those accidents were attributable to red-light running.

Federal and state studies indicate that the cameras do tend to reduce the number of "T-bone" collisions at intersections, but may also slightly increase the number of rear-end collisions, according to the staff report.

Mayor Peter Ohtaki asked staff to compile statistics before the Aug. 27 meeting showing which violations were due to turning right on red at each monitored intersection.

Drivers pay $480 for a red-light ticket if the court does not reduce the penalty. Menlo Park gets about $155; the rest goes to the county and state. The staff report calculates that the program nets the city's general fund about $84,000 per year if all the cameras are operational.

Menlo Park's contract with Redflex contains a "cost neutrality" clause that saves the city from paying the $5,000 to $6,000 monthly fee per camera if revenue from citations doesn't cover the cost.

A growing list of local cities, including Belmont, Redwood City, Hayward, Emeryville, Union City and San Carlos, have shut down their red-light camera programs for a variety of factors, such as cost and effectiveness.

Vice Mayor Ray Mueller asked how long the cameras, which run 24 hours a day, store data. A Redflex representative said 30 days, although the city has the option to purchase longer retention times; it stores the data on encrypted servers at its Arizona headquarters. The company said its agreement specifies that only the Menlo Park Police Department may access the videos.

Check for updates. This paper went to press before the Aug. 27 meeting.


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