Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Grand jury: Red light cameras shouldn't be a cash cow for San Mateo County cities

By Shaun Bishop

Daily News Staff Writer
Posted: 06/07/2010 08:17:29 PM PDT
Updated: 06/08/2010 12:49:30 PM PDT

Red light cameras in San Mateo County should be used by cities to prevent traffic collisions, not to generate ticket revenue, the county's civil grand jury said in a report released Monday.

The grand jury recommended that city councils hold public hearings at least once a year to review accident data and determine whether the cameras are having the desired effect of decreasing the number of crashes.

"When reports indicate that accident rates have not been reduced, action should be taken to investigate why and removal of the red light cameras should be considered if they are not effective," according to the report.

When the grand jury looked at crash numbers for different Peninsula camera systems, "we could not identify any solid trend showing accident rates were lower after installation of red light cameras," said Bill Blodgett, the grand jury's foreman.

The grand jury also recommended that cities develop a standardized way of reviewing possible violations and make sure prominent signs are displayed near intersections to warn motorists of cameras.

In recent years, red light cameras have proliferated on the Peninsula, with at least 13 new installations since 2008. As a result, the San Mateo County Superior Court has been overwhelmed by a rapid rise in red light violations, according to the report.

In 2009, the superior court processed 30,948 red light violations, nearly double the 17,211 it handled the year before, at a
time when the court is cutting its budget, the grand jury found.

A majority of the citations are for motorists who roll through a red light on a right turn, said Court Executive Officer John Fitton, who supports the grand jury's call for evaluating accident data before and after installing cameras.

"I think there would ultimately be fewer citations, but they would be more targeted and ideally based on a solid foundation of research upfront," Fitton said. "(The cameras) would indeed be at the intersections where accidents are."

A ticket for a red light violation in the county is $446. The grand jury said the fine for right-turn red light violations "seems out of proportion to similar offenses," noting that failing to stop at a stop sign or going 15 mph over the speed limit are both $214 tickets.

Redwood City City Council Member Ian Bain agreed that he and his colleagues should periodically review accident numbers for the two cameras at the intersection of Veterans Boulevard and Whipple Avenue, which average about $65,000 in monthly revenue for the city, according to the grand jury.

"It was certainly never our intention to try to raise revenue," Bain said. "It was all about trying to make the city safer."

The report comes a few days after the state Senate approved a bill that would limit the placement of red light cameras to crossings with a history of collisions. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, would also require posting of signs where devices are installed and simplify the process for challenging unjust tickets.

In a separate effort, Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, introduced legislation to reduce fines for motorists caught by red light cameras rolling through a right turn to $250 instead of $446.

E-mail Shaun Bishop at sbishop@dailynewsgroup.com.


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