One of San Diego Mayor Bob Filner's first acts this year – before he became preoccupied with other affairs – was to end the use of cameras to catch motorists running red lights, labeling them "the San Diego version of a traffic trap."
It was the latest in a string of recent setbacks for the devices, indicating that they may be on the way out of California.
Redflex Traffic Systems has dominated the red-light camera industry, claiming they improve safety and persuading cities and counties to install them in return for a share of fines, typically about $500 each.
However, critics say the cameras mostly snag motorists who don't come to a complete stop before making turns, rather than those running through intersections, and therefore aren't the lifesavers that boosters claim. Opponents have also accused cities of setting yellow lights at camera- protected intersections on minimal times to ensnare more motorists.
Two years ago, Los Angeles shut down its cameras, and several other cities have followed suit. Currently more than 50 local governments use them, but a similar number have either rejected them or, like San Diego and Los Angeles, backed away after initially installing them.
Last year, a state appellate court issued the most authoritative judicial ruling on the issue to date. It declared that using data from Redflex to convict motorists of running red lights, without verification, denies ticketed drivers the right to confront accusers.
That published decision (California v. Borzakian) didn't abolish red-light cameras, but significantly raised the legal barrier – and thus the potential cost – for their use and made them less valuable as cash cows.
Red-light camera battles have been fought not only before local governments – Menlo Park is the latest battleground – and in the courts, but also in the state Legislature.
The Capitol has seen a steady stream of anti-red-light camera bills, but police, cities that use the devices and Redflex have, for the most part, staved off major restrictions.
This year's red-light camera battle is being fought over Assembly Bill 612, which raced through the Assembly on a 72-1 vote and is now pending in the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.
Carried by Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian, D-Burbank, the measure would chip away at red-light cameras by requiring local governments using them to add an additional second to all yellow lights over the current legal minimum. It's based on a contention that giving motorists longer transition times would prevent violations and accidents.
AB 612 is the handiwork of the anti-camera Safer Streets LA, but enjoys support from the AAA auto clubs, many transportation unions and the Association of California Highway Patrolmen. Redflex, of course, is among the opponents.