Investigating Red Light Cameras

Are red light cameras more about safety or the fines that go with them?

You have probably seen red light cameras in cities across the Bay Area. You may have even been nabbed by one.

If you have received a ticket in the mail, you know that the fine for running a red light isn’t cheap.

“How am I going to handle $480 dollars,” said Tina Castro of Sunnyvale, who got a ticket in San Francisco last July.

Hayward resident John Swarr received a ticket at an intersection near his home a year ago. It was $470.

“It was like a slap in the face,” he said. “I feel in actuality, these cameras are ripping off the people who can least afford it.”

Suresh Bazaj got caught on camera at a Fremont intersection in October 2010. When he received a hefty $470 fine in the mail he was furious.

“These cameras have nothing to do with safety,” he said.

And that is the heart of this issue. Some Bay Area politicians want people to believe that red light cameras are all about making the streets safer. But our investigation found that in South San Francisco the number of crashes at intersections with red light cameras is up, not down.

According to South San Francisco’s Police Chief Mike Massoni, the primary purpose of red light cameras is to increase traffic safety and cut down injury crashes.

“Not about money at all,” Massoni said.

South San Francisco’s red light cameras are, in fact, causing the city to lose money. This past year red light camera fines generated $435,162 for the city. But the cameras cost the city $485,259. That is a loss of about $50,000.

Even though the red light cameras have not reduced crashes and have caused the city to lose $50,000, Chief Massoni said they make people more aware of when and how they drive. He says the cameras have a deterrent effect.

An NBC Bay Area News investigation found that California drivers are paying higher fines and fees for running red lights than any other western state. California’s base fine of $100 grows to nearly $500 with add-ons for court construction, court security, emergency medical services and DNA identification penalties.

By contrast, lawmakers in Colorado cap the fine for running a red light at $75. Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, tried to regulate red light cameras statewide.

“We ought to look at the driving public as people we’re trying to keep safe,” Simitian said. “Not as ATM machines for local or state government.”

Simitian proposed legislation that would have prohibited cities and counties from using the cameras to simply raise money.

Late last year Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, but Simitian is already revamping his red light camera legislation and plans to reintroduce it this year. Castro believes California’s photo enforcement program is in desperate need of reform, adding that the cameras should not be viewed as revenue generators for state and local agencies.

“It feels like the government is mugging you and it’s not something I want to tolerate,” she said.

Swarr wants to see more drastic action. “I feel like they should just get rid of the cameras,” he said. “They should just get rid of them.”

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