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Oceanside Gives Green Light To Red Light Cameras

— In a dramatic announcement, the City of Oceanside said it will double its current inventory of red-light cameras. They now have two and they’re going to have four.

You may differ with my view of the event’s relative gravitas. But you have to agree the news comes at an auspicious time for supporters of the controversial camera cops. This week, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety issued a study that put the cameras in a very rosy light. It showed the rate of fatal red-light running crashes, in cities with red-light cameras, dropped 24 percent compared to previous years when they didn’t have the cameras.

So fewer people are running red lights and they’re killing fewer people because of it. You should also know that this reduction in the rate of fatal crashes applies to all city intersections, not just the ones that happen to have red-light cameras. Apparently, just knowing the cameras are out there somewhere makes motorists less likely to run red lights.

Red-light cameras are controversial for a variety of reasons. In San Diego, which has a strong libertarian streak, red-light cameras have been seen as intrusive big government. I once moderated a talk-show interview that involved an attorney who represented unhappy motorists. She claimed that taking a photo of you, as you drive your car on a public street, is an invasion of privacy.

The City of San Diego has had red-light cameras for 14 years (it currently has them at 15 intersections). In 2001, a judge ordered the city to dismiss hundreds of citations, ruling that the city gave too much control over the process to the vendor who supplied the cameras. People didn’t like the idea that a private company might be making a lot of money by generating traffic tickets. Today, state law requires cities to pay vendors a flat fee, not a percentage of the tickets generated.

Despite many years of controversy, reports show that red-light cameras work. The Insurance Institute says San Diego has seen its fatal crashes, tied to red light running, fall more than 50 percent after introducing the cameras. The LA Police Department reports a 63 percent reduction in red-light related traffic accidents since cameras were installed. Oceanside public safety officer Phillip Romo told me the city’s two intersections with red-light cameras have each had only one collision since the cameras arrived in 2004.

The only contradiction to the many positive stories of red-light camera effects seems to be a Federal Highway Administration study which showed the cameras increased the number of rear-end collisions.

Running a red light costs you $466 in California. Romo said the city gets 43 percent of that, and Oceanside clears $12,000 to $19,000 a year in revenue from red-light tickets, once you subtract the cost of reviewing the tickets and paying the vendor fee.

Maybe it’s the lack of humanity that really bugs people about red-light cameras. If you’re stopped by a cop for speeding, you may be able to talk your way out of it. You can challenge a citation if its his word against yours. But with red-light cameras, you’re busted. Period.

Or maybe not. Lt. Andra Brown of the San Diego Police Department says in 2010 there were 59,000 “events” where a red-light camera went off. But, of those, the city issued only 17,500 citations.

“We don’t ticket people who are still in the intersection because they’re stuck in gridlock,” she said. “If there’s a gender mismatch (between the owner of the car and the person shown driving the car) we don’t issue a citation.”

Maybe that will make some people feel better about paying $466.

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