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Study: Use red-light cameras for safety, not cash

Outsourcing traffic enforcement to red-light and speed camera vendors can spell trouble for municipalities, according to a new report from a consumer watchdog group.

The report by the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) finds that about half the states have enabled use of automated traffic cameras, letting local governments contract with private companies to install the equipment and issue citations. But citizens have often objected to privatized forms of traffic enforcement and many municipalities have found themselves in legal trouble when they attempt to change or update these contracts, the report says.

Engineering alternatives, such as lengthening yellow lights, are often the best way to reduce injuries from red-light running, the report says, but such solutions often get short shrift from ticket revenue-hungry contractors and municipalities.

“Automated traffic ticketing tends to be governed by contracts that focus more on profits than safety,” CALPIRG Legislative Director Pedro Morillas said. “Too often, local governments are taken for a ride by red-light camera vendors overly focused on their bottom line instead of public safety.”

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, authored a bill this year that would’ve reformed the use of traffic cameras by requiring local governments to post signs near where the cameras are installed; develop uniform guidelines for screening and issuing tickets from the cameras; make formal fact-findings to justify future installations; to ignore revenue, beyond the system’s own costs, when considering whether to install such systems; and so on.

SB 29 had overwhelming bipartisan support, approved by the Assembly on a 70-4 vote and by the state Senate on a 38-0 vote. Yet Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill this month, writing that installation and maintenance of such camera systems “is something that can and should be overseen by local elected officials” without state interference.

But CALPIRG’s report recommends stronger guidelines to ensure that automated traffic enforcement programs focus on improving road safety, not ticket revenue. It says contracts between local governments should carefully compare cameras with alternatives, and their contracts with vendors should be scrutinized for conflicts of interest or any direct or indirect incentives for vendors based on the volume of tickets issued or fines collected. Public control over traffic policy and engineering decisions must be retained, the report says, and the contract process should be completely transparent and open, including public participation and information about finding online data on automated ticketing for each intersection.

“We’ve already run into controversy over the use of red-light cameras here in California,” Morillas said. “We need to learn from past mistakes to keep our roadways from becoming ATMs for private companies.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.