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| Colliding Views
on Red-Light Cameras
By Jorge Casuso
For supporters, placing cameras at selected traffic lights is a cause-effective way to help save lives.
For opponents, it is yet another intrusion by "Big Brother" on our privacy.
On Tuesday night, the City Council will consider initiating an automated red-light enforcement program that snaps pictures of vehicles that run red lights at selected intersections. Already, the proposal for a three-year pilot program, has divided council members who often agree on most issues.
"Protecting safe drivers from red light scofflaws is a public safety issue," said Councilman Kevin McKeown, a member of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights who also is a Green Party member. "These would not be indiscriminate surveillance cameras. They would only document an extremely life-threatening traffic violation, if and after it happens."
But fellow SMRR and Green Party member Michael Feinstein is worried that placing too much trust on technology has disturbing implications.
"People are blinded by the technology, thinking the robot will be better than the human," Feinstein said. "Every situation is not black and white. There are many unique cases that demand an officer's discretion at the scene, but we lose that with this technology. We're being seduced by the technology."
Advocates of the program - which has been implemented in eleven cities across the state - contend that the officer viewing the image still has final discretion. They note that the system has reduced red-light violations and accidents in cities where it has been implemented, which include Beverly Hills, Culver City, West Hollywood, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
"Where photo enforcement detection systems are in use," the staff report said, "there have been significant and measurable results in terms of increased motorist awareness and reductions in the number of red-light violations at targeted intersections. When the system is in place, heightened public awareness results in increased compliance with intersection controls, even at neighboring unmonitored intersections."
In Santa Monica, red-light violations accounted for 1,566 of the 18,549 traffic citations written last year, up from 1,311 in 1998, according to the report.
Of all the traffic collisions that occurred in both 1997 and 1998, 7 percent were caused by red-light violations. Of the 1,573 traffic collisions reported through October 1999, approximately 7 percent were caused by red light violations.
The staff report offers a valuable insight into traffic enforcement over the last 50 years.
In 1951, there were 14 motor officers deployed in the city. By 1975, the number of motor officers in service had dwindled to two. The traffic unit was disbanded that year and was not reactivated until 1985, when a state grant helped deploy six officers and one sergeant.
Last year, there was one lieutenant, one motorcycle sergeant, six motorcycle officers, one commercial enforcement officer and one traffic collision investigator assigned to the Traffic Division. Supplemental traffic enforcement is provided on a part-time basis by a seven-member team.
When compared to 16 similar cities, Santa Monica ranked fifth in staffing level of motorcycle officers.
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