5/17/2013California: City Obsessed With Red Light Camera Ticket Numbers
Emails reveal Menlo Park, California remains obsessed with red light camera ticket numbers.
California is the largest market for red light cameras in the country thanks to the fines set by the state running nearly $500 each. Municipalities that adopt the technology are quick to deny any possibility that financial considerations have anything to do with their decisions to monitor local intersections. Internal discussions between the city of Menlo Park and camera vendor Redflex Traffic Systems suggest otherwise.
Menlo Park is currently in the process of deciding whether to renew its contract, so earlier this month the city signed a sixty-day extension allowing four cameras to continue operating until July 2. The decision of whether to install a fifth camera hinges on the number of citations that can be generated, not on any accident reduction consideration, according to a review of emails between the Menlo Park Police Department and Redflex.
Redflex currently charges a monthly fee of $5651.50 for each intersection camera it operates. That means to be profitable, a location must generate just twelve paid tickets each month. On March 11, Redflex spent twelve hours videotaping traffic at the intersection of Bayfront Expressway and Chilco Street, counting how many tickets it might be able to issue in that time. For the eastbound direction, the company counted zero violations caused by a driver running straight through a red signal -- the type of violation that might cause an accident. Instead, there were 114 vehicles turning right on red, a maneuver that, though ticketable, is rarely dangerous according to federal data (view study). The result at the intersection would be sufficient to issue $650,000 worth of tickets annually.
"My only question is: since most of the violations are right turns, how long would that be sustainable?" Traffic Sergeant Sharon A. Kaufman asked in a March 28 email to Redflex. "Once behavior changes will we see a drastic reduction in the number of citations/violations?"
The response from Redflex account representative Mark Riggs presupposed no such behavior change.
"The normal process for a new approach is the first few months there will be high numbers then it will begin to decline and stabilize," Riggs replied. "Where it drops is anyone's guess due to all of the variables involved. I can say that most intersections that have right turns enforced continue to produce consistent numbers."
The emails show that Menlo Park has not changed its ways since it was slammed three years ago by the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury for focusing solely on citation numbers ( view grand jury report, 1mb PDF file).
"Based on interviews and responses to survey questions, the reporting of accident statistics is not being used as a measure of the effectiveness of red light cameras," the grand jury found. "The primary emphasis appears to be on the number of citations issued. Based on the data provided by the cities, there was no overall trend indicating a noticeable change in accident rates before and after installation of red light cameras."
From 2008 to 2012, Redflex issued 23,066 tickets worth $11 million in Menlo Park. In February and March of this year, Redflex mailed $330,000 worth of tickets, according to data supplied by HighwayRobbery.net.