For many California drivers, there have been few worse plagues than the red-light cameras that once operated in more than 70 cities across the state.
At their peak, red-light cameras meant tickets costing upward of $450 for offenses like stopping for a red light with the front bumper a foot over a painted restraining line, or stopping before making a right turn, but having the camera “see” it as not a stop. Judges never allowed cross-examination of camera operators to be certain their machines were not running faster than life speed.
But things are getting steadily saner on the red-light camera front, where only about 50 California cities still run such systems, operated by outfits like Redflex Traffic Systems and American Traffic Solutions, both based in Arizona.
Over the past few years, more than 40 cities around California have given up on photo-tickets, from Belmont and Cupertino in the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles and Poway in Southern California, plus Fresno in the Central Valley.
Also, voters in Anaheim, Murietta and Newport Beach all turned down red-light cameras when the question appeared on their ballots. Voting results were the same in 24 other cities.
There may be few law enforcement tactics more widely detested than red-light cameras. But Beverly Hills, San Francisco and Culver City still have them.
Now the crucial, related issue of how long yellow lights should stay on has been resolved in favor of motorists.
Relatively short yellow- or amber-light intervals at intersections can amount to traps for unsuspecting drivers if they are traveling too fast to stop when a light turns yellow, but not so fast they can make it across the intersection before the light goes red.
For many years, yellow lights have been set to correspond with speed limits, but prevailing traffic speeds in many places are higher than the posted limits.
So Caltrans, spurred in part by legislation introduced last year by Democratic state Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian from the San Fernando Valley, has changed the rules, demanding that from now on all yellows must be set according to the prevailing speeds of traffic, not the speed limits.
This may amount to a change of less than half a second, but it’s enough to make an enormous difference in the number of tickets issued. For example, reported the Safer Streets Los Angeles organization, when West Hollywood increased its yellow-light interval by just three-tenths of a second, violations at its red-light cameras dropped by at least 40 percent.
In Fremont, Safer Streets said, when Caltrans increased yellow-signal time by seven-tenths of a second, violations fell by 76 percent. A full second more yellow time in Loma Linda brought a 92 percent reduction in tickets.
There are also the questions of whether red-light cameras make streets safer or even make much money for the cities than authorize them. In Oakland last year, city officials claimed to have netted just $280,000, while Redflex said the city got just over $1 million. Either way, the take was so paltry, Oakland doesn’t bother anymore.
As for safety, there are claims — never substantiated — that because red-light cameras can inspire to drivers to slam on their brakes while traveling at fairly high speed, they lead to more rear-end collisions. Longer yellows should reduce that danger as well as the peril of getting a ticket that can cost well over $500, when all expenses are done.
None of this, of course, speaks to the serious constitutional issue of whether any legal proceeding can be valid when defendants can’t cross-examine the people responsible for maintaining the red-light cameras.
The bottom line: All signs point to the eventual expulsion of red-light cameras from this state. They’ve been demonstrably unfair for years, which has led to their phenomenal unpopularity. Add that to the questions about reliability and increased safety, and you have a program that probably won’t last many more years.