Corona, CA: Red light cameras hit stop signs in many Inland cities

Following decisions by Los Angeles and several Inland cities to get rid of their red light cameras, Riverside and Corona face similar choices this month when their contracts with the camera companies come to an end.

Supporters say the camera programs -- which use pictures and video to ticket drivers for running red lights -- are proven to reduce crashes and encourage safer driving.

Opponents argue the accident data is inconclusive and the cameras can be a financial drain on city budgets and drivers who may be guilty merely of not pausing long enough during a right turn.

Further clouding the cost and safety issues, the Los Angeles City Council's recent decision raised confusion over whether drivers actually have to pay the tickets.

Officials say the short answer in Riverside and San Bernardino counties is yes, you must pay red light camera tickets. Ignoring them could lead to penalties such as extra fees and suspension of your driver's license.

Crashes down

In cities with active red light camera programs, officials say collision statistics show increased safety since the cameras were installed.

Corona put in five cameras at four intersections in 2009. Since then, red light violations are down 50 percent, and crashes are down at all intersections, including those without cameras, said Corona police Sgt. John Marshall.

The reduction in crashes is an indication that motorists have changed their behavior, Marshall said, and that's the goal of the camera program.

"The numbers are going down like crazy," he said. "I love it. It's a phenomenon other cities are telling me is happening in their communities."

After starting its program in 2006, Riverside now has cameras at 20 intersections.

"Since the program's inception, there has been a steady and drastic decrease in the number of vehicles captured running red lights," city management analyst Staci Sullivan wrote in an email.

According to city statistics, violations at intersections with cameras, and collisions citywide have both dropped.

Tom Herrmann, director of public information for Redflex Traffic Systems in Phoenix, which provides red light camera systems to cities, said various studies show the devices change driver behavior and save lives.

"While there are some very vocal opponents, most people look at traffic safety cameras and say, 'I want safer intersections.' And the data supports that traffic safety cameras improve safety," he said.

But officials in some cities that scrapped their camera programs said they saw no such dramatic results, and cities' statistics varied so widely it was hard to call them conclusive.

San Bernardino council members have said that fear of an expensive ticket from the camera can cause rear-end crashes because some drivers slam on their brakes at yellow lights.

Murrieta officials opted earlier this year to extend their camera contract. They acknowledge rear-end crashes are up, though they blame it in part on an increase in traffic on city streets.

Additionally, some question the safety benefits of punishing people for rolling right turns, which some cities say account for a majority of their red light camera tickets.

Corona's statistics show most of its tickets -- 67 percent -- are for left turns on red lights, which Corona police Lt. Mark Johnson said cause the most serious-injury crashes. But San Bernardino and Loma Linda officials have claimed the bulk of their tickets -- as much as 80 percent in Loma Linda -- are for right turns.

"The safety factor hasn't been proven true," Loma Linda Councilman Ovidiu Popescu said.

Loma Linda officials have said they significantly reduced red light running by adding one second to the timing of yellow lights. Riverside officials said they stick close to federal and state guidelines for minimum length of yellow lights -- three seconds for a 25 mph intersection -- but they add one or two tenths of a second.

Donald Teagarden, a retired sheriff's deputy who reviews tickets for Riverside, said simply making yellow lights longer could create its own issues.

"The problem you're going to run into is people who live in Riverside are going to get used to a six-second yellow," then they'll end up running red lights in other cities where the yellow cycle is shorter, he said.

Large fines

The economics of the cameras are another source of confusion and dispute.

There's a public perception that the cameras make big money for everyone involved -- the companies that operate them and cities that install them, as well as county courts and state government.

Statistics suggest a different and more convoluted reality. The total fine, typically upwards of $400, is made up of a base fine plus more than a dozen county and state fees for public safety and courts. Cities only collect a percentage.

Riverside officials said they get about $142 per ticket, or 30 percent of the $476 ticket cost. The San Bernardino city website lists a total ticket cost of $408, but it wasn't clear how much of that the city receives.

As of 2004, state law bars the camera companies from basing their revenue on the number of tickets issued.

The economics have been an ongoing problem for San Bernardino. The city was already losing money on its camera program when the City Council voted in March to end a contract with American Traffic Solutions early. The company responded by demanding a $1.9 million penalty payment. Officials are negotiating the fee with the company.

San Bernardino City Attorney Jim Penman has declined to discuss negotiations with American Traffic Solutions other than to say he believes the dispute is headed to court.

"Ending the contract was not the right thing to do if it was going to cost us $1.8 million," Councilman Rikke Van Johnson said.

Highland officials say the city has made $80,500 from the cameras since installing them at two intersections three years ago, and Grand Terrace officials say theirs are cost-neutral.

But Riverside and Corona have spent more money than the cameras have brought in, though the losses are small. In Riverside, the city pays a flat per-camera fee to Redflex and has nine part-time retired officers review the violations. Last fiscal year the cost came to about $506,000 more than revenues. This year officials project the program will come out $28,000 ahead.

Some officials say the cost/profit issue is a separate debate and making money isn't the purpose of the cameras.

"We implemented our program for public safety. "We picked our (camera) locations based on accident data and surveys of red light running at particular intersections," Riverside Public Works Director Siobhan Foster said.

But some point out that it's not just cities losing money on the cameras. People who may already be struggling in a down economy then get hit with a nearly $500 ticket -- money they might otherwise spend at local stores or restaurants.

Ronnie Mitchell, 21, a student at Riverside City College and Moreno Valley resident, is now facing a fine of about $800 because his ticket from Riverside went to a former address and he missed his court date.

He came to Riverside City Hall last week to review the photos and video of his recent violation. Mitchell said he plans to ask a judge to reduce the fine.

Jenae Brown, also of Moreno Valley, said she didn't have time to go to court over the ticket she received in December for a right turn in Riverside. It took her about four months of cutting back to cover the ticket cost.

"Valentine's Day was coming up, so I told my husband, 'You're not getting anything and we're not doing anything,'" she said.

Not voluntary

Some drivers who got red light citations in Los Angeles were angry to learn recently that city officials concluded paying the tickets was "voluntary" because Los Angeles County Superior Court officials were not enforcing unpaid tickets.

In Riverside and San Bernardino counties, drivers who receive a citation but fail to either pay the ticket or appear in court will be given an extra fine. If they still don't respond, the court reports them to the Department of Motor Vehicles, which could suspend their license.

L.A. Superior Court spokeswoman Kathy Roberts explained in a written statement that courts are allowed but not required to report drivers to the DMV. Los Angeles court officials have determined that reporting red light camera violators to the DMV could cause "an unfair result where the owner of the vehicle is denied the ability to renew his or her license," even if they weren't driving the car when a camera caught it, Roberts' statement said.

She also noted that the court sends unresolved red light tickets to a collection agency.

Riverside and San Bernardino county courts report drivers who ignore red light citations to the DMV, officials said. However, any penalties depend on the type of ticket issued, and certain tickets can't be enforced.

Riverside and Corona officials said they send out two kinds of tickets: notices of violation, which have been dubbed "snitch tickets," and citations.

A citation is sent when a camera catches a red light violation, and a person reviewing the photos and video determines the driver is the person to whom the car is registered. Citations include a time and location for a court appearance, and ignoring those carries penalties.

Notices of violation are sent when it's unclear who was driving a car that ran a red light. Mailed to the car's owner, notices of violation ask the identity of the driver caught on camera.

City and court officials can't penalize the car's owner if they can't prove who was driving the car during the red light violation.

The notice of violation "lets the registered owner know, 'You better pay attention. You're responsible for this vehicle,'" Teagarden said.

But, he added, "You're under no obligation to help us."


City officials continue to hold mixed opinions on red light cameras. Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge said he agrees with staff's conclusion that the cameras have reduced accidents, and he wants to continue the city's contract with Redflex Traffic Systems.

A council committee may discuss the contract Aug. 22, pending negotiations with Redflex, and a vote by the full council could come in September.

Riverside has retired law enforcement officers review every violation and use discretion on whether to send out tickets, he noted.

"Part of the reason our program has not received a lot of negative attention is we are very careful, I think, when we send a violation out," Loveridge said, adding that having the cameras has made him more cautious at all intersections.

Corona Mayor Stan Skipworth, who is also a police officer, interprets such changes in driving behavior differently. Collisions and injury rates in that city have gone down since cameras went in.

"I feel like the program has met its objective and I don't see a need for it to continue," Skipworth said.

"The idea is to use it to bring greater awareness and improve traffic safety and hopefully cause a long-term change of habits of people who otherwise may be less diligent. I don't know (that) keeping the system in place will bring significantly more awareness."

The Corona City Council will discuss the camera contract Aug. 17.

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