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Council Puts Brakes on Red Light Cameras

By Elizabeth Schneider

August 14 -- In a 4 to 2 vote Tuesday night the City Council temporarily put the brakes on a controversial plan to install automated cameras used to catch drivers running red lights at some of the city's busiest intersections.

Council members asked staff for more information on installing and operating such devices before negotiating a five-year lease agreement with Redflex Traffic Systems Inc.

"In the beginning I was strongly supportive of [this program] as a tool to discourage the running of red lights," Councilman Ken Genser said of the council's decision back in February 2000 to approve in concept the implementation of a photo enforcement program.

"But I don't think the information [provided by the staff report] is convincing, and I'm not ready to support this," he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown echoed Genser's concerns.

"I take this running of red lights seriously and I've done my own research and I don't feel comfortable with this," McKeown said. He noted that the staff report failed to "go into depth" over civil liberties concerns.

The $4.2 million program intended to improve traffic safety is heavily favored by the Santa Monica Police Department and Chief of Police James T. Butts.

According to the department's own statistics, there were 142 collisions directly related to the running of red lights between January 1, 2000 and September 30, 2001.

"During that same period of time 2,636 citations were issued for both motorists who ran red lights and pedestrians who crossed against red lights," Captain Jacqueline Seabrooks said.

Drivers trying to beat red lights are responsible for about 800 deaths and 200,00 injuries each year nationwide, according to insurance industry figures.

Some of those who spoke before the council raised concerns over the "draconian" program, stating that the cameras would not only violate the civil liberties of individuals, but would hinder due process.

Speaking as a private citizen as well as a member of the Southern California division of the ACLU, attorney Michael Klein said that the absence of a police officer physically doling out tickets hinders a driver's recollection and the right to "mount a defense successfully."

Bob Seldon told the council of his negative experiences with red light cameras in other parts of Los Angeles, specifically at the corner of Sepulveda and Wilshire Boulevards.

"People are slamming on their breaks because they are afraid they are going to get caught by the camera," he said. The installation of these devices, he said, are "introducing new kinds of accidents."

Several speakers noted a study conducted in Australia that cited an increase in the number of rear end accidents where such cameras were installed.

An alternative, Seldon and other speakers suggested, would be to lengthen the duration of yellow lights, an idea both Butts and Council member Pam O'Connor disagreed with.

"A longer yellow light could encourage people to speed up and go faster to just to make it through the light," said O'Conner, who is leaning favorably towards the program.

Only Councilman Robert Holbrook said outright that he would "support [the program] now or in the future."

By not adopting the program, Holbrook said, the city would be perpetuating bad driving habits.

Redflex, a company that installs and operates red light cameras in Culver City and Ventura as well as three other states and oversees, has just added video cameras to their still digital photography equipment.

Mayor Michael Feinstein said his concerns about civil liberties and due process had not been addressed and that he did not think they ever would be.

In essence, the red light cameras would be hooked up to traffic signals and sensors and would take a photo when a car passes the sensors at a specified time after the light has turned red. The camera would only snap the picture if the driver exceeded the "threshold speed" set by the sensors.

A photograph of the driver's face and license plate along with a $271 ticket would then be sent to the vehicle owner's address.
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