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California: Los Angeles Auditor Finds No Safety Benefit to Red Light Cameras
City auditor finds no safety benefit to red light cameras in Los Angeles, California.

Controller Wendy GreuelLos Angeles, California City Controller Wendy Greuel yesterday issued a scathing 77-page critique of the red light camera program responsible for ticketing 44,542 Angelenos last year. While city officials insisted that ticketing "red light runners" caused a significant reduction in accidents, the numbers show that 67 percent of those tickets were actually mailed to people making right turns on red, not running red lights. The auditor found no credible evidence that safety had improved at the monitored intersections.

The total number of collisions at camera locations did decline 72 percent between 2004 and 2008, but they increased 53 percent from 2008 to 2009 -- at a time when accidents at locations without cameras had dropped 14 percent. Rising gas prices and the recession led to a significant drop in traffic volume from 2004, forcing auditors to label the Los Angeles Police Department's (LAPD) safety claims as "misleading" because they did not take into account broader trends that could explain the change in accidents.

"Without a formal engineering survey, attributing these results solely to automated enforcement is questionable," the audit explained. "For example, we learned that LADOT instituted an all-red phase at photo red light intersections, along with the camera installation. That change alone could have made the intersection safer. We noted other concerns regarding the completeness and type of data that is collected. Other factors that affect reported program results are not considered. Taken together, these issues cloud the value of reported outcomes."

One of the most critical flaws in the data comes from the LAPD policy of not filing accident reports unless there is an injury or a crime like hit and run is reported. With most intersections only having five accidents, a single collision could sway the results either way.

"Based on concerns regarding the completeness and relevance of the data collected, the success of the photo red light program cannot be judged solely on these reported statistics," the audit concluded.

Safety was not even the main concern when deciding where to install cameras. Instead, political considerations were given the final say, as the primary goal was to avoid a "negative public perception of the program," according to the audit. The city also avoided locations on state roads because that would have required an engineering analysis -- something the city wanted to avoid because it might suggest alternatives to enforcement. As a result, instead of placing cameras at locations with up to 13 accidents caused by red light running, the private vendor installed cameras at a location with only 2 accidents.

"Studies we reviewed suggest that a DOT engineering survey or evaluation should precede referring an intersection for automated enforcement," the audit explained. "Any enforcement method should be the last resort for increasing public safety."

The city claimed it could not afford to perform any formal engineering studies to find alternative means of reducing accidents. Although the city acknowledged that longer yellow times would reduce so-called red light running, it refused to extend times by more than a third-of-a-second. State law in Georgia and Ohio mandates one extra second of yellow at enforced intersections.

"LAPD stated the city intentionally lengthened the time for the yellow signal phase from the legally required 3.6 seconds to 3.9 seconds or higher in deference to potential violators," the audit explained. "They estimate this effectively reduced by one-third the number of citations that would have otherwise been issued."

The audit did claim that the program that issued tickets with a face value of $19,865,732 last year was operating at a loss. American Traffic Solutions (ATS) charges $3,071,250 to operate cameras at 32 intersections, and the city's share of the ticket collections was $3,704,548. Still, the auditor suggested the city was operating the program at a loss because it claimed the salaries of six full-time and three part-time employees against the program. ATS performs all of the required tasks for the ticketing program, and court documents suggest that in many California cities, police frequently do not review citations one-by-one before they are issued.

Revenue is also lower than expected because motorists are widely ignoring the pricey $446 citations. In 2008, 39 percent of tickets went unpaid. That figure jumped to 52 percent in 2009. The court does not put a hold on vehicle registrations or driver's license for those who ignore a photo ticket, so there is no consequence to tossing the citation beyond the possibility of being reported to a collection agency.

The audit also points out that between September 2009 and April 2010, ATS operated the camera program without a valid contract (page 52). Earlier this year tickets issued in the city of South San Francisco without a contract were found to be invalid, forcing the refund of 3000 citations worth $1.3 million.

View the full audit in a 1.1mb PDF file at the source link below.

Source: Audit of the Photo Red Light Program (Los Angeles, California City Controller, 9/29/2010)

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