Traffic camera plan halted

TURLOCK -- The Police Department wants to catch red light runners in the act by putting cameras at some of the city's busiest intersections.

But is their proposal against the law?

The City Council three times has delayed votes to hire a red light camera company. Last week, they postponed it indefinitely as city officials try to figure out if a proposed contract with Arizona-based Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. would stand up in court.

"I don't want to engage ... Turlock in a legal battle where we're having to expend taxpayer dollars defending a system intended to help offset the cost of enhancing traffic safety," said interim City Manager and Police Chief Gary Hampton.

At issue is a provision that protects the city from losing money on the deal. The rent is $6,000 a month for each intersection camera, but a "cost-neutrality" clause means the city would never pay Redflex more than what it collects from tickets.

In December, a state appeals court in Orange County ruled on a case in Fullerton, where the city's contract allowed fees to be negotiated down if the monthly rent to the red light company exceeded what the city pulled in from tickets. The court said the contract could be an incentive for the company to increase the number of citations issued and paid, violating the state Vehicle Code. Judge Robert J. Moss said evidence from the cameras in that case was inadmissible.

Phaedra Norton, Turlock's city attorney, said traffic court cases like the one in Orange County do not set legal precedent.

Norton said Turlock is in a holding pattern while the California Supreme Court reviews another case involving red light cameras.

"It may resolve the cost-neutrality issue, it may not," she said.

Modesto, which began photographing red light offenders in mid-2004, has a cost clause in its Redflex contract that is similar to Turlock's.

Police Lt. Chris Fuzie said the Fullerton case doesn't apply to Modesto.

"It's different than what we're doing," Fuzie said. "We're not worried about it."

The Modesto department issues citations in just 48 percent of the cases Redflex sends it, Fuzie said.

"Irregardless of what they're sending us, we are only looking for those violations that are significant," Fuzie said. "If it's close, we don't issue it."

Turlock's contract would allow Redflex to install as many as 10 red light cameras over five years, photographing offenders and helping police issue $380 tickets. Less than half that amount goes to the city to fund traffic enforcement programs. The rest goes to the county and state.

The first two camera candidates would be West Monte Vista Avenue at North Golden State Boulevard and Geer Road at West Hawkeye Avenue.

For Turlock, police said the main selling point is to reduce collisions and have an extra pair of "eyes" to catch drivers barreling through red lights, Lt. Ron Reid said.

At the two intersections tapped for the cameras, 30 percent of accidents last year were caused by drivers running a red light, Reid said.

Federal Highway Administration research found that cameras can reduce red light violations and broadside crashes but can increase less serious rear-end accidents when people stop suddenly to avoid a ticket.

Reid said the cameras would not be positioned to catch right-hand turn infractions, which are seen as a less serious safety problem and an infraction that can confuse drivers.

Most red light camera programs don't generate extra revenue, but Modesto's four cameras generated $455,000 in traffic fines in 2008, according to a March report. The city paid $309,000 to Redflex for the cameras. The law requires the extra money be funneled into traffic enforcement.

Since 2007, citations at all four intersections have declined, "as drivers become more aware of the dangers of running red lights," police said.

Reid said possible revenue from the cameras would not be factored into next year's budget.

"I'd be fine if we didn't make a dollar on it," he said. "It's two less intersections we have to watch."

Q&A: Red Light Cameras

What are their safety benefits?

A review of international red light camera studies concluded cameras reduce red light violations by 40 percent to 50 percent and reduce injury crashes by 25 percent to 30 percent. Some studies have reported that red light cameras reduce front-into-side collisions and overall injury crashes, but can increase rear-end crashes.

Do the cameras photograph every vehicle passing through an intersection?

No. Cameras are set so that only those vehicles that enter an intersection after the light has turned red are photographed. Vehicles that enter on yellow and still are in an intersection when the light changes to red are not photographed.

Does someone review the photographs before motorists are ticketed?

Yes. Trained police officers or other officials review every picture to verify vehicle information and ensure the vehicle is in violation. Tickets are mailed to vehicle owners only in cases where it is clear the vehicle ran a red light.

Do red light enforcement programs generate money?

Independent audits of red light camera enforcement have found that these programs generally do not generate excess revenue. For example, the California state auditor reported in 2002 that red light cameras were not generating large amounts of revenue. Just two of the state's seven camera programs were break even or better.

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at or 578-2337.