Thursday, May 17, 2012

Marin grand jury supportive of San Rafael's red-light cameras

By Jessica Bernstein-Wax (Marin Independent Journal)

San Rafael's red-light cameras have increased traffic safety and motorist awareness downtown, according to the Marin County civil grand jury.

In a report released this week titled "Red Light Cameras: Big Money, Big Brother or Big Safety?," the grand jury found the number of traffic accidents decreased at northbound Irwin Street at Third Street and on westbound Third at Irwin, where the cameras are mounted, and that criticism of the cameras is largely unfounded.

"The Marin County Civil Grand Jury concludes that red-light cameras constitute a viable safety option for the reduction of red-light intersection accidents, but only when they are used in conjunction with creative city planning, constant reviews of traffic flow and continued use of other innovative traffic distribution options," the report said.

It cited San Rafael police statistics indicating that accidents decreased 12 percent in the program's first fiscal year of operation at the intersections with cameras. In addition, the grand jury said pedestrians, bicyclists and dog walkers interviewed for the report "almost universally perceived that red-light cameras at dangerous intersections provide a significant increase in safety for themselves" and their animals.

The report also discounted critics' arguments that right-turn violations should carry a lesser penalty and that cities are aggressively ticketing motorists simply to boost their revenues, among other allegations.

"A national economic analysis showed that red-light cameras saved society $39,000 to $50,000 annually at each intersection where they were installed," the report said. "That number may not be monumental but neither is it trivial — especially to those drivers and pedestrians not injured as a result of adequate enforcement."
Grand jury foreman and Novato resident Michael Chernock noted that, when issuing citations, San Rafael calculates violators' speed based on 85 percent of their actual speed.

"They've gone out of their way to make this thing as clean as it can be," Chernock said.

San Rafael City Manager Nancy Mackle said city officials wouldn't comment on the report outside of the formal response process.

In January the San Rafael Police Department reported that the cameras were used to issue 3,075 citations from Jan. 1 through Dec. 15, 2011. In 2010 that number was 4,188 for the entire calendar year.

Arizona-based Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. set up the system for free and charges the city a monthly fee of $5,900 per intersection approach. However, if the program doesn't draw enough revenue on tickets to cover those costs in a given month, Redflex rolls over the deficit to the next pay period, the police department said.

Red-light cameras around the state and country have garnered criticism on a range of issues. In California, critics have focused on the price of tickets, which cost violators about $450 apiece in San Rafael, with about $140 going to the city; the large number of motorists cited for "rolling" right turns, which many consider less dangerous than other red-light violations; the questionable reliability of evidence from a camera rather than a police officer; and that private companies benefit financially from citations.

San Rafael's five-year contract allows for up to 10 cameras, and Mayor Gary Phillips said earlier this year that the council will be discussing whether to expand the program in coming months. City officials said the item may come before the council as soon as July.

"We have the two (cameras) so we should have some sense of effectiveness and receptivity so we can make a decision as to whether that's the right number and maybe it's none, maybe it's 10," Phillips said Wednesday, noting that he hadn't reviewed the grand jury report yet.

Gary Kauffman, a San Rafael attorney who has represented a number of clients in red-light camera cases including retired KGO Radio and ABC7 personality Dr. Dean Edell, said the report fails to address "the basic unfairness in denying a person the right to confront their accusers in these photo red light cases.

"A Phoenix, Arizona corporation called Redflex just gives a police officer who did not witness anything a video and digital photos of a person driving through an intersection, and he testifies that he thinks they show a violation," Kauffman said in an email. "The average person does not know that this evidence is objectionable and should not be used against them at their trial."

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