Smile and say fees: Cameras catching on for catching red-light runners

San Diego Union-Tribune
Jenifer Hanrahan

Stefanie Steinberg thought her driver’s license photo was bad until she got nabbed by an automated camera while cruising through a yellow light at Garnet Avenue and Ingraham Street in Pacific Beach.

OK, OK. So it was red — by 0.7 of a second.

The slightly blurry, black-and-white photograph came in the mail. It shows her wide-eyed and open-mouthed, gripping the steering wheel with both hands and looking as startled as Leonardo DiCaprio spotted by paparazzi with his pants down.

“I was blinded by the flashes,” said Steinberg, 24, outside of traffic court in Kearny Mesa. “I was scared to death. I didn’t know what was happening.”

Steinberg is one of nearly 4,000 San Diego motorists caught on film each month and ticketed for running red lights. In California, the fine is $346 — the steepest in the nation.

Last year, red-light runners busted by cameras generated $827,000 in city revenue, while violators caught by cops earned only $62,000. Cameras at intersections accounted for about one-fourth of the $3.2 million the city collected for traffic violations.

But as the cameras’ flash catches the eye of more motorists, the high-tech devices are raising concerns of privacy vs. public safety and technological efficiency vs. human judgment.

Supporters of red-light cameras — and surveys show this includes nearly 80 percent of the public — say the devices reduce smash-ups caused by red-light running, one of the most hazardous urban traffic infractions.

“The number of violations at the intersections is going down, and that’s because people are preparing to stop as opposed to preparing to speed up when the light turns yellow,” said Sgt. Terry McManus, a spokesman for San Diego’s red light enforcement program. But detractors say the cameras remind them of Big Brother. They question the revenue-sharing arrangement in which Lockheed Martin IMS, the San Diego-based company that monitors the devices and mails the tickets, receives $70 for every ticket paid in the city of San Diego.

They also claim the cameras target law-abiding, honest motorists because vehicles without front license plates cannot be cited.

“The whole automated enforcement is a bit creepy, and very Orwellian,” said Patrick Mulroy, a traffic school owner and creator of, a Web site that gives information on contesting traffic tickets. “And once people understand the system, anybody that wants to avoid this ticket can take their front license plate off. From a fairness perspective, automated enforcement is a sham.”

Watching over you

The driver may have been in a hurry, or maybe distracted by a cell phone. Either way, around Christmastime four years ago, a motorist drove through the intersection of Fletcher Parkway and Magnolia Avenue in El Cajon about a second after the light turned red.

Click! Click!

As the car passed over two sensors embedded in the road, a camera flashed twice, and the unlucky driver became the first person ticketed by a red-light camera in the San Diego area.

Red-light cameras have been common in Europe since the late ’80s, but the concept has only recently caught on in the United States.

San Diego installed its first red-light camera less than two years ago.

Now, with 16 cameras in place and plans for another 16 this year, San Diego’s program is one of the most extensive.

El Cajon, the only other local municipality with red-light cameras, has two that rotate among six intersections. Nearly 40 jurisdictions nationwide — including 16 in California — have red-light cameras and a dozen others are considering it, said Richard Retting, senior transportation engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

But California’s penalties for red light tickets are the harshest.

In most states, red light tickets are treated like parking tickets. Cameras photograph the rear license plate only, and the registered owner of the vehicle has to pay the ticket, regardless of who was driving. The fines range from about $50 to $75 and do not result in points on the driving record.

In 1998, the California’s Legislature nearly tripled the fine for running a red light from $103 to $346. Tickets also result in points — and potentially higher insurance rates. San Diego Superior Court tacks on a $30 fee for anyone opting to go to traffic school, which costs an additional $15 or so.

One reason for higher fines in California is because state law requires identification of the driver before a ticket is issued, meaning cities can’t rely on a high volume of tickets to pay for the program, Mulroy said.

But police officers and state legislators who voted for the higher fines say the stiff penalties deter red-light running and fit the seriousness of the infraction.

From 1992 to 1996, an estimated 260,000 crashes nationwide resulted from red-light running, according to an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study. About 750 people die each year; 154 of them in California, making this state’s intersections the deadliest.

At busy intersections, studies have shown red lights are run as often as every 10 minutes. “This creates a Russian roulette for the driver,” Retting said. “In many cases, running a red light will not have a consequence to it. But when it does, it can be a catastrophe.”

But some studies show the deterrent effect is unrelated to higher fines. An institute study of Oxnard and Fairfax, Va., found both cities saw an average 40 percent drop in violations a year after red-light cameras were installed, Retting said.

In Fairfax, the fine is $50.

Enforcement issues

In some respects, the cameras are brutally efficient. Unlike a cop, they don’t waste time listening to lame excuses. There’s no chance they’ll give you a stern warning and let you slide.

And yet, most violators nailed by the cameras are never ticketed.

Glare, a blurry photo and missing front license plates mean police don’t cite from 60 to 70 percent of red-light runners.

For rental cars, company cars or in cases in which the registered owners prove someone else was driving their cars, police typically rely on the cooperation of the business or vehicle owner to identify the driver.

For instance, airport traffic making a left from North Harbor Drive onto Grape Street does the most red-light running in San Diego. In February, cameras recorded 2,652 violations, but only 985 citations were issued.

Even if lots of drivers are getting away with it, police are issuing far more tickets than before, McManus said. The corner of Harbor and Grape was rarely staked out by motor officers because there was no safe or effective vantage point to watch or enter traffic.

Drivers considering taking off the front plate to avoid a red light ticket, be warned: The equipment violation, a “fix-it” ticket with a $10 fee after you prove you’ve put the plate back on the car, gives police probable cause to pull you over at any time.

And San Diego police are pulling over more drivers than ever for missing front plates.

“That means if you’ve had two drinks and you’re driving, you could turn something relatively minor into a very serious offense,” Mulroy said.

Some drivers are willing to take their chances. One Solana Beach man, who asked to not be identified, knew his picture was taken driving through an intersection. He didn’t worry because he doesn’t have a front plate.

“There’s no way I’m putting it on,” he said.

Decreasing violations

It’s too early to determine if San Diego’s program has reduced traffic accidents.

What’s sure is that the number of violations is decreasing as drivers become aware of the cameras. At the corner of Palm Avenue and Beyer Boulevard, violations decreased so much the camera is not being monitored, said San Diego Police Officer Scott A. Thompson.

That situation illustrates the Catch-22 of making red-light enforcement profitable in the long term. When fewer people run red lights, fewer tickets are generated, making it harder to pay for the expensive equipment and technicians needed to operate the program.

In the city of San Diego, Lockheed Martin IMS provides the cameras, each worth about $50,000, installation, servicing, initial film review and mailing of citations.

In return, Lockheed Martin gets $70, or a little less than half, of the $143.86 state law says the city of San Diego can net per ticket.

“That’s one of the beauties of the program,” said Dana King, vice president of marketing for Lockheed Martin IMS. “The violators are paying for the program. (The city) gets a traffic safety program and they don’t have to incur the costs.”

That may work in a city with lots of traffic, but smaller cities are having a harder time. It will take three years for El Cajon, which put up money for some of the equipment, to break even, said Ed Krulikowski, city traffic engineer.

Poway recently halted its red-light camera enforcement when contract negotiations faltered with Lockheed after the company said it wanted to start charging a monthly fee. “We calculated that we would lose money on it,” said Mike Robinson, Poway’s traffic engineer.

While Lockheed says it has yet to turn a profit on the cameras in San Diego, some drivers are skeptical of profit-seeking companies handing out tickets. “We’re going on their word that these cameras are accurate,” said Brent Hodge, fighting his ticket in traffic court. “The company that makes them is the company that maintains them. They’re not out for traffic safety. They’re out for a buck. And I’m supposed to trust them?”

While there is no independent calibration or verification that the cameras are accurate, King says the system is designed to ensure photographs are taken only when the light is red.

Before the cameras are put into place, city engineers make sure the lights are timed correctly, giving motorists adequate time to stop, given the speed limit of the road.

“If you believe in black helicopters coming down in the middle of the night then you’re going to think anything is suspect,” King said. “There is an integrity to the contract with the city and to the court of law.”

Day in court

On a recent evening at San Diego Superior Court, nine men and women clutched citations containing seemingly damming photographic evidence.

Two nights a week have been set aside for camera violations.

About 8 percent of drivers ticketed by red-light cameras go to court over the citation, making up about 20 percent of trials at the Kearny Mesa branch of the San Diego County Superior Court, said Stephen Thunberg, executive officer of the courthouse.

Leroy Brady, 29, was in the car with his wife and 8-year-old daughter when he got nailed. Brady stood before the judge and said the light was yellow. He said he would never do anything to put his family in jeopardy. He said he could not have stopped safely.

He even called a witness — his wife, Melanie Roiz.

“At any point, did you perceive danger?” Brady asked her.

“No,” she replied.

“As we were driving through the light did you think anybody was going to hit us or I was going too fast?”


“Did you at anytime think we were going to run the light?”


Wielding diagrams and a felt-tip marker, Officer Scott Thompson, trained by Lockheed to interpret the data, did a series of math equations to prove Brady could have safely stopped.

In the end, the judge offered Brady a deal — either have his fine reduced, or pay the fine and go to traffic court to avoid a point on his license.

“I drove safely. I had everybody’s well-being in mind,” Brady said. “You can do all that figuring, but unless you’re in the car you can’t know.”

Several people got out of paying. Brent Hodge’s ticket was dismissed because his car was in lane No. 1 in the photograph, but the information on the ticket said he was in lane No. 2.

Nick Dalfio, a driver for a bread company, was waiting for the light to change at about 3 a.m. Without another car in site, he said made a U-turn while the light was still red. His case was dismissed because his car did not cross the sensor about 10 feet into the intersection.

“I wasn’t going to pay all that money without a fight,” Dalfio said.

Stefanie Steinberg’s ticket was dismissed when the court did not have the correct paperwork. She walked out of the courtroom, wide-eyed and open-mouthed at her good fortune.

A Better Mousetrap

A Better Mousetrap

By Cody Goodfellow

As freedom-loving Americans, we demand a weak police force and judicial system that will respect our privacy and give us the benefit of the doubt at every turn, but we also demand the kind of security and safety that comes with a police state. The shaky balance between order and liberty is a paradox we all face every day, when we entrust each other with our lives and our property on the roads. The police department in San Diego has never been able to completely control the problem, and with the city’s rabid growth and escalating traffic hassles, breaking, or at least chipping away at, the law is fast becoming routine. caption

Declaring martial law is expensive and bad public relations for a tourist town, so the city has gone to a private corporation for a solution. Sixteen intersections in San Diego are now watched by high speed still-image cameras, which are owned and operated by Lockheed IMF, a domestic division of the mammoth defense contractor that builds spyplanes for the Pentagon. A blow has been struck for order, and is quietly taking an average of 2000 San Diegans a month to task for their casual lawbreaking. The only ones you can hear complaining about it all have tickets in their hands with photos of themselves caught redhanded, so how can you take them seriously? If you can’t, congratulations, and when you learn to drive like a true Californian, we’ll see you in traffic school.

The red light camera system hasn’t aroused much controversy because it draws a clear boundary between order and liberty, which is a beautiful thing in the abstract, but tends to justify lawless excess in the real world. It also stands right at the edge of social custom, leaving a lot of people who don’t think of themselves as dangerous scofflaws on the wrong side of the line. How many of you have watched some reckless jackass narrowly miss clipping your car as he or she rockets through a red light, and wished for a policeman to punish them? How many of you have run a red light for what seemed like very valid reasons, and bitched out “The Man” for ripping you off with an unfairly large fine? What side you stand on can change depending on how much time you have to get to work, and some of the thorny issues the cameras represent deserve serious examination.

Roughly 40 cities have contracted with private corporations to monitor their most embattled intersections; Lockheed IMF runs 38 of them. The National Insurance Institute has studied their impact on collisions caused by red light violators, which account for some 25% of accidents, and Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater has recommended them to city governments as an effective deterrent. Ron Jury, a vice president of public relations at Lockheed IMF, stressed this part of the program’s appeal in a telephone interview from his office in Teaneck, New Jersey. “In recent years, you’ve seen a real public shift against aggressive driving. Intersection accidents claim thousands of lives every year, and this is a program that can impact that.” Still, if they expected society to embrace them as a boon to safety, they wouldn’t have made them bulletproof. Officer Chuck Kaye of the SDPD’s photo enforcement task force, claims there’s been very little controversy. “Some people appreciate it, others, especially those who’ve been ticketed, probably have a different view.”

A very different view, to say the least, is presented by local traffic school owner Patrick Mulroy, who runs a Web site ( on contesting tickets. “Safety,” he insists, “is a smokescreen that they like to throw out there to justify making money.” According to Mulroy, the city and Lockheed IMF have entered into a partnership to gouge a monstrous windfall out of ordinary citizens who’ve never been ticketed before, even under the watchful eyes of a policeman. It’s not a terribly compelling scenario until you look at the players–a moderately idealistic Governor committed to undoing the hatchet-job his predecessor did on the budget; a city government legendary for its lust for big-ticket items taxpayers won’t spring for; and a private corporation, which does, after all, exist to make money. “These tickets are the ultimate perversion of the traffic court system,” Mulroy says, “but this technology is just the flavor of the week. The entire traffic enforcement system has been turned into a revenue-generator for the state.”

And violations generate revenue that make them a mainstay in annual budgets. Five to six million people get tickets in California every year for one-point infractions. That’s over a billion dollars a year if you look at an average fine of $120 to $140. According to Patrick Mulroy, only about one percent of people or less contest their tickets, and ever since the traffic court system was streamlined in 1968 to exclude jury trials and court-appointed defense attorneys, the margin of income over expenses has continued to grow even as our driving grows worse.

The problem with this scenario, in effect, if not in motive, is that the cameras are pitched not as a tool to catch violators, but to deter them. If everybody obeys the law, the river of fines dries up. Dana King, vice president of marketing at Lockheed IMF’s San Diego headquarters, is confident that everything is above-board, and that the cameras are a necessity. “You can never get effective control of this problem until you have automated enforcement. We do a lot of public awareness, and we tell people, ‘if you go through this intersection when the light’s red, you’re going to have a ticket.’ Go figure.” The advent of the cameras was heralded by a mass postcard mailing to every household in San Diego, along with bus billboards and posters in the DMV, all so the citations would come as no surprise.

The figures for the citations in other photo enforced cities give a rosy image of compulsive utopian brotherhood on the roadways within a couple of years. A decrease in violations of 20 to 40% occurs in the first year, and roughly ten percent each year thereafter. Charlotte, North Carolina had a record 60% decrease. Accidents decline by about the same percentage elsewhere. Figures for San Diego have not been compiled yet, and no one was willing to give a preliminary estimate, but Lt. Mary Cornicell of the SDPD told me “the theory is that if the citations go down at a particular intersection, then the number of collisions will go down, too. I’ve learned from the vender that we haven’t photographed any accidents in San Diego, so that’s probably a good thing.”

San Diego Traffic Manager Toni Barradas provided me with figures for the number of photo enforcement citations issued since the program began, and the numbers are staggering, suggesting that 1) no one in San Diego reads bus billboards or junkmail, and 2) San Diego has quietly slipped into a state of near-anarchy behind our backs. The photo enforcement tickets boosted the average police-issued total of 250 a month to 863 in October of last year, then climbed as high as 2314 in December. And the numbers aren’t declining; in August of this year, the last month for which statistics were available, 2276 tickets were issued to hard-headed, lead-footed San Diegans. These skyrocketing totals are natural, since the intersections were never policed 24 hours a day before.

If these figures seem to fulfill local conspiracy theorists’ direst warnings, the case of El Cajon, which has had the cameras in service since October of ’96, bears out Lockheed’s claims. Violations at four of six intersections of June of this year totaled 128, and 43 were issued. Officer Van Every, who presides over El Cajon’s photo enforcement program, says he’s only had to appear in court about half a dozen times in the last three months. “Most review the information and the photograph, and pay the fine. We try to be fair. This system was put in to reduce the number of accidents, and red light violations cause 25% of all accidents.” Again, exact figures for the actual reduction in violations and accidents were hard to come by, but Van Every allowed they’d gone down by “a pretty good percentage.”

But there’s a cost, too: as Patrick Mulroy explains, the cameras lack a police officer’s expertise in making a traffic stop. “If I’m a cop, and you rob a bank in a stolen car, or a car with no front plates, and run through a red light, I stop you, get all the money, and you’re in jail. You rob a bank and there’s no cop there–there’s Robocop. You’re wearing a hood, you’re in a stolen car, and you run 1500 red lights; there’s 1500 pictures of you in a hood in a stolen car full of money. It can’t do what a cop can do–exercise judgment and discretion, as only a human can.”

Welcome to The Machine

For those of you who haven’t yet received the city’s informative but expensive “Statement Of Technology,” the system itself is elegant in its cut-and-dried simplicity, and works like this: six tenths of a second after the light turns red, sensor loops in the road just over the limit line are activated, and trigger the camera when a car passes over them at a speed greater than ten miles per hour. The timing device is accurate to 3/1000ths of a second; the camera has a Schneider lens, imported Dutch surveillance technology. About 1 1/2 seconds later, the camera takes a second shot of the violator moving through the intersection. From these, two more shots are generated later, one of the driver’s face, and one of the front license plate.

The film and memory cards are collected and delivered to Lockheed IMF’s photo interpretation center in Sorrento Valley. The photos are scanned and assessed by two technicians to see if 1) a violation did indeed occur, and 2) if the violator can be identified. Only 30 to 45% of the photos become tickets; these get assigned randomly generated citation numbers, passed on to another, who checks the photo data against DMV files to match the car and driver with the file data. The citation recommendations are then forwarded to the police, who review them before having them sent out.

A supervising technician at the Lockheed IMF photo interpretation center told me they have far less leeway than a police officer when reviewing the tickets, but stick to a hard and fast chronological yardstick that makes an eyeblink seem like a long nap. “Because of the technology, we can capture the person entering the intersection the instant the light turns red. A lot of people can’t conceive of 6/10ths of a second, so they honestly feel that they entered at a yellow light. But we can show that the light had been red for x amount of time, even if it hasn’t been a whole second. If there’s any question that a violation occurred, then we won’t issue a citation. Any time we issue one, we’re confident that a violation occurred.”

Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1999 by Cody Goodfellow. All rights reserved.
This article originally appeared in the November issue of The Weekly, San Diego.

Money extraction seems to be major aim of traffic enforcers

Mark Arner

LEMON GROVE — In early December, while driving down the street in this quiet little city, I was surprised by the loud siren and flashing red lights aimed at me.

I pulled over, wondering what I’d done. It was the first time in 25 years that I’d been stopped by the law. The sheriff’s deputy asked if I knew the speed limit. I told him 35 mph. “I clocked you going 47,” he said, with a kind of “gotcha” expression.

I signed the ticket at his request — not admitting guilt, but promising to appear a month later in El Cajon Municipal Court.

My next surprise was the fine. The court, in its “courtesy notice,” said my bail was $346. That seemed high for driving 12 mph over the speed limit.

It gave two options to lower the fine: I could pay only $204 — if I mailed the payment in 30 days. Or, I could take traffic school to get the violation dismissed, but that would cost more: an administrative fee of $228, plus whatever the traffic school charged. Finally, it warned if I failed to settle the case within a month, it would cost an extra $250 civil assessment and my driver’s license would be suspended.

With my insurance rates in mind, I chose option No. 2 and enrolled in “Patrick’s Comedy Traffic School.” It turned out better than I expected.

For $15, instructor/owner Patrick Mulroy spent eight hours teaching the basics: How to calmly respond to police officers; what speeds are legal; how cameras automatically take motorists’ pictures and mail tickets when they run red lights; and the tough penalties for drinking and driving.

However, the best part of his course for me was when he noticed mistakes on my ticket.

The deputy had listed the road’s speed limit as 5 mph, instead of 35 mph. He also didn’t fill in the blanks noting the traffic, weather conditions and the road’s safe speed.

Mulroy also explained motorists’ rights that the court’s letter didn’t: You can challenge tickets without an attorney — either in writing, or by showing up for trial. He also noted that a road’s posted speed limit is usually not the “law.”

The state’s basic speed law actually prohibits driving “at a speed greater than is reasonable, or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, the traffic . . . .”

City councils usually set the speeds on major roads, based on the average speed that most motorists drive during traffic surveys.

After the school was finished, Mulroy offered to sell a packet of written defense “declarations” for a half-dozen different traffic violations that could guide you in your defense in court. He charged $6.

He also said he thought that California’s traffic enforcement system had been corrupted into a money-making tool for government and private insurance companies.

During the past several decades, Mulroy noted, state lawmakers have eliminated motorists’ right to a jury trial for most traffic tickets, and increased the years that tickets remain on our records — which allows insurance companies to charge higher rates.

Based on his three years of teaching and research, Mulroy estimated that only 20 percent of motorists attend traffic school, and a mere 1 percent challenge their tickets in court.

A spokesman for the Department of Motor Vehicles said it doesn’t keep track of how many traffic citations are issued, how much it collects in traffic fines or how many people challenge tickets.

However, the DMV recorded 4.7 million convictions for traffic violations last year from the state’s 20.5 million licensed drivers.

To get ticket revenues, you have to call each city. Lemon Grove, for example, collected $49,709 in traffic fines during the 1998 fiscal year.

“They might as well set up an `Anytime Teller’ in the middle of the courthouse,” Mulroy said.

I followed Mulroy’s written defense guide and challenged my ticket.

But, that was after I did my own research and discovered that the Lemon Grove City Council had lowered the speed limit a year before on Palm Street to 35 mph from 40 mph.

The latest speed survey showed that the average speed on the street was 40 mph, and the “safe speed” was 43 mph, according to a certified copy of the survey from City Hall.

So, I had been ticketed for going 4 mph faster than the “safe speed,” at the bottom of a four-block-long hill.

I pointed out to the court that the Sheriff’s Department had picked the base of hill — at Mulder Street — to set up a speed trap.

It took me one court appearance to complain about the deputy’s mistake on the speed limit. Court Commissioner Rankin then agreed to lower my maximum fine to $62 from the initial $346. I pleaded not guilty and asked for a “trial by written declaration,” meaning both the deputy and I had a few weeks to submit conflicting views of the incident.

The deputy emphasized his 200 hours of training, three years of traffic enforcement and 11 years with the Sheriff’s Department.

He also did his best to enhance the appearance of my alleged offense, by adding things that he hadn’t noted on my initial citation. He said it happened only two blocks from a school. City maps show that Mulder Street is four blocks from the school, and three blocks away from the “school zone.” The deputy also wrote that the weather was “cloudy,” the road was “wet” and the traffic was “medium.” I wrote that the road was dry, the weather fair and the traffic light. We both signed our statements under penalty of perjury.

Court Administrator Frederick W. Lear advised me a couple weeks later that I had been judged “guilty,” but didn’t say who made the decision. He assessed no fine, but ordered me to pay $24 in court fees, and said he would dismiss the record of the violation if I took traffic school.

I took him up on his offer. I handed over my traffic school receipt and wrote a check for $24. Case closed.

But, it still felt like Lemon Grove, the Sheriff’s Department and the traffic court system were more interested in revenue than in safe traffic.

Maybe ol’ Patrick has a point. He is building an Internet web site to spread the word. The address?

The joke’s still on us, though.

DMV infractions on the record longer

James P. Sweeney,

SACRAMENTO — Millions of Californians could face higher auto insurance rates, and some already are having a tough time finding jobs, as a result of the Wilson administration’s decision to quietly rewrite rules that govern public disclosure of driving records.

The administrative edict lengthened the time that offenses ranging from too many moving violations to drunken driving remain public record. The change was made in November by Gov. Pete Wilson’s appointees in the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Those guilty of such vehicular misconduct tend to evoke little sympathy. But motorists who have had old violations resurface or linger longer than expected say it amounts to changing the rules after their debt to society was set and, in some cases, paid.

Insurance companies almost certainly will use the additional information to raise rates for those with spotty driving records and to assess such penalty premiums much longer than they have in the past.

Brian Soublet, an attorney and rating specialist with the Department of Insurance, said the industry has clear legal authority and is expected to factor the new information into their premiums.

The Department of Insurance recently repealed rules that had restricted insurers to a “three-year snapshot” of driving records for rating purposes, he noted.

Harry Benedict, a construction manager from Encinitas, was incensed when he discovered his nearly 7-year-old DUI, which under the old rules was about to be wiped off his record, is going to be with him for three more years.

“What the DMV is doing … benefits insurance companies to the tune of millions of dollars, and I think it’s an outrage,” Benedict said.

The new disclosure revisions were executed with no public notice, although the insurance industry had been involved and at least some of the new rules clearly reflect insurers’ wishes.

Industry is a supporter

Throughout Wilson’s political career, the insurance industry has been one of his strongest supporters, providing more than $1 million for his 1994 re-election effort alone.

Wilson administration officials say the changes were dictated solely by a multiyear review prompted by numerous changes in law.

Nonetheless, the new guidelines position the industry to take advantage of two potentially landmark developments about to play out in the auto insurance arena. They also could generate a new, backdoor revenue stream for an industry under mounting political and competitive pressure to reduce auto rates for its best customers.

On Feb. 18, insurers must submit new auto rating plans based on the “good driver” provisions of Proposition 103. For the first time, those rating plans must make individual driving records the dominant factor.

A new law effective Jan. 1 also threatens the state’s estimated 5 million uninsured motorists with the loss of their cars and their licenses if they continue to drive without coverage.

Such license suspensions in the past have been public record for one year. Under the new rules, they will remain on drivers’ records for three years, the precise window that insurers can use such blemishes to deny the 20 percent “good-driver” discount mandated by Proposition 103.

Little-noticed action

Sally Reed, a respected former Los Angeles County chief administrator who heads the DMV, ordered the disclosure revisions in a little-noticed action on Nov. 1.

“It’s strictly looking at the law, the information that we maintain and the requirement that we make it available,” Reed said. “We are required to maintain the information. We don’t have a legal basis to refuse to provide it.”

Disclosure periods for a handful of offenses, such as reckless driving and hit-and-run, were shortened. But for twice as many other situations, time lines were lengthened. The most contentious change has been the extension from seven to 10 years for drunken driving convictions. However, untold millions with less serious violations also will be affected.

In addition to insurers, many employers review driving records of job applicants.

“It’s unfair,” said Mark Lopez, an unemployed truck driver from Rancho Dominguez near Los Angeles. “I did everything the court asked, everything the DMV asked — community service, AA meetings, paid a lot of money to go to this drunk driver school.”

Lopez had expected an old DUI to disappear from his record late last year as the court and DMV promised in terms set out at his sentencing. It did lapse, for two months.

“I went to get a DMV printout for a job interview and all of a sudden they had it all back on there,” he said.

With his DUI back on his record, Lopez said he didn’t bother to go to the interview.

“It’s going to hurt a lot of people,” he said. “It makes it tough.”

Maze of rules consolidated

Reed and her top lieutenants say the department merely consolidated a complex, overlapping maze of statutory and administrative obligations to maintain driver records.

Over the years, changing laws required the DMV to keep some records, such as DUIs, longer than it historically had made those records public. Reed said she simply concluded that the state’s Public Records Act required full disclosure.

That may be true, conceded state Sen. Quentin Kopp, a San Francisco Independent and chairman of the Transportation Committee. But he said the department should have aired its intentions at a public forum.

Kopp said he suspects the DMV acted largely at the behest of the insurance industry and the governor’s office. It would be unusual for Reed to pull the trigger on such a potentially controversial move without clearance from Wilson’s top aides.

“It’s the manner of making the changes and the secrecy in doing so, which bothers me,” he said. “I think the department deserves a spanking for acting in response to insurance companies’ pressure and without a public hearing.”

Sean Walsh, Wilson’s press secretary, said the governor’s office neither initiated nor passed final judgment on the revisions.

“There was no decision made in the governor’s office,” Walsh said. “The (DMV) simply informed us that the changes made in reporting were to bring DMV policies in compliance with statute.”

Kopp plans to grill Reed at a public hearing soon and is pondering legislation that would roll back some of the reporting time lines.

Reed insisted she was not prodded by anyone.

“I never had a call from an insurance company. I never met with an insurance company,” she said. “I haven’t had any dealings with them. Now they are interested, obviously. But they haven’t made any requests of me. … Nobody intervened in this decision. It was strictly looking at the law and what options we had.”

No one disputes that insurers have for years been pushing the DMV for greater access to its records, particularly since the passage of Proposition 103. A top priority was extending from one to three years the disclosure of license suspensions.

The Personal Insurance Federation, a trade group that represents most of the state’s largest auto insurers, sponsored legislation to do just that two years ago. The bill was shelved when DMV officials said they could provide the access administratively, said Dan Dunmoyer, the federation’s president.

Consumer groups surprised

While the new disclosure guidelines were being developed, the federation reminded the DMV of its desire to have all license suspensions declared public record for at least three years, Dunmoyer said.

Consumer groups, in contrast, had no idea the disclosure rules were being revised until they received a DMV bulletin sometime in November, after the changes had been made.

“This is exactly what the industry wants,” said Michael Shames of the San Diego-based Utility Consumers’ Action Network. “I can tell you it was not driven by consumers or consumer groups.”

Harvey Rosenfield, the author of Proposition 103, said he has no objection to the changes.

“In our view, you get a 20 percent discount if you’re a good driver,” Rosenfield said. “That means not more than one moving violation in three years. But people who have a better record than that could conceivably get an even better discount. So it’s good for us to have this information out there.”  

New insurance law puts ticketed drivers in the red

Chet Barfield

Unemployed painter Doug Buse doesn’t have much money. He’s 36 and lives with his mother and stepfather in an El Cajon apartment.

Buse hadn’t owned a car for two years. He did drive one recently, however, and had the bad luck to be pulled over for a broken taillight.

Now Buse (rhymes with “juice”) is facing a $1,350 fine under California’s new law requiring all drivers to carry proof of insurance. And he thinks that’s unfair.

“I tried to explain to the judge that I didn’t have a car. He said, `You might drive, so you should have insurance.’ ” said Buse. “That’s asinine.”

The circumstances that brought Buse to El Cajon Municipal Court on May 7 are complicated. The short version of the story is that he is one of many thousands of drivers cited in San Diego County since the law went into effect Jan. 1.

“We probably get 40 to 50 people a day coming in here with insurance tickets,” said William McGrath, the judge handling most of the East County court’s traffic cases. “(The law) has obviously impacted us, and I’m sure it’s impacted every court in the state.”

Indeed, cases under the new law are ranging from about 700 a month in the South Bay to 2,500 in San Diego, according to Municipal Court administrators. The East County court processed more than 1,200 traffic-insurance citations last month; the North County, about 2,000.

“We’ve noticed the increase in workload, you bet,” said Sharon Cole, deputy San Diego Municipal Court administrator. “We’re busy.”

Clerks are picking up much of the load because many of those ticketed do not end up going before judges. They can come in and get the citation dismissed, for a $10 fee, by showing they did have insurance — just not the proof — when ticketed.

Others go out and get insurance after being cited. Upon verification, the fine is reduced by $1,200, to $150.

Meanwhile, drivers in unprecedented numbers are buying insurance before getting caught without it, which is what the law intended. Many are doing so because the state now requires proof of insurance to renew registration tags.

“We’ve seen a tremendous influx of new business from people who were not previously insured,” said David Lewis, a Rancho Penasquitos agent whose client list has more than doubled. “It certainly appears from our point of view that the new law is working.”

California law has long required minimum liability coverage, but compliance incentives were weak. Before the new statute’s enactment, it was estimated that as many as 30 percent of drivers remained uninsured.

Now, the DMV requires proof of insurance to process vehicle registrations. The new law also authorizes officers making traffic stops for any reason to ask for those little insurance cards, along with the driver’s license and registration. No policy? Here’s your citation and $1,350 fine.

The California Highway Patrol alone issued 127,842 no-insurance citations statewide — 7,345 in San Diego County — from January through April.

The law “has enabled us to take action against those people who have been getting away with this for a long time,” said Sgt. John Marinez, a CHP spokesman.

The American Agents Alliance, representing 700 independent agencies statewide, says the law is generating lots of business. Member agencies report numbers of new policies increasing 30 percent to 400 percent since January, said Executive Director Lorelle Hurlbut.

However, some carriers worry that the new clients will cost them more in claims. They also fear that scofflaws will buy a policy, get a card and quit making payments.

“We opposed the law because we didn’t feel it was workable,” said Lynnea Olsen, vice president of the Association of California Insurance Companies. She said it’s too soon to tell whether drivers in fact are buying policies and skipping on payments.

As for Buse, he contends that he didn’t own a vehicle, so why should he have insurance? He says he was buying the ’71 Volkswagen van from a private party and “test driving” it while making payments.

He’d had the van two weeks — most of that time in the shop — when he was ticketed March 29. The engine seized the next day and Buse walked away, telling the seller to come tow “his” van to the junkyard.

But the seller, William Pohlle of La Mesa, says Buse signed a typed bill of sale when he took the van March 16, and that the document held Buse responsible for insurance liability. “He was in full knowledge of what the situation was,” said Pohlle.

Under the law, no matter who owns a car, the driver must make sure it’s covered. “If you don’t, you’re in big old trouble,” said Mark Rakich, chief consultant for the state Assembly Insurance Committee.

None of this bodes well for Buse, who pleaded not guilty May 7 and has a court hearing on the matter scheduled June 11.

Judge McGrath, who did not preside over Buse’s initial appearance, said he hears arguments like his every day. “Thirty to 40 percent are claiming it wasn’t their car, or they were only driving around the block, or they’re only driving once a year.”

The judge tells them that if they were creamed by such a driver, “They would not consider it an appropriate excuse (to hear), `I was just driving around the block. I have no insurance, so I can’t pay your medical bills.’ “

McGrath estimates that about half of the motorists coming before him are opting to buy insurance and lower the fine.

He said, “I guess the good news is that of 100 people I see, 50 of them now have insurance who wouldn’t have had it before.”  

Cameras take aim at traffic violators | Police to go high-tech at key intersections

Ray Huard

Run a red light and — flash — get a keepsake color snapshot, courtesy of San Diego police along with a $105 ticket.

Under a one-year pilot program approved by the City Council yesterday, special cameras will be installed within six months at 16 targeted intersections to photograph motorists who run red lights.

The snapshots will be mailed to the registered owners of cars or trucks caught cruising through the intersections under the soft glow of a traffic light that’s turned to red for stop.

If the registered owners weren’t driving when their cars or trucks were snapped, they can explain the situation by writing a note and the name of who was driving on the back of the photograph. Then they can mail it back to the city, said traffic engineer Julio Fuentes.

Those who don’t name the drivers could wind up arguing their case in court, Fuentes said.

To get their picture snapped, motorists will have to cross into the intersection after the light has turned red, said Dana King, marketing director for U.S. Public Technologies Inc., the firm that will install the cameras.

Rushing through on a yellow light won’t count, King said, even if the light changes to red when the car is partway through the intersection.

“We tend to err on the part of the driver,” King said.

For the first 30 to 60 days, those caught by the cameras will get a warning, Fuentes said.

The city has yet to decide which intersections will be equipped with the cameras, Fuentes said.

Those that have logged the highest number of accidents include:

  • 43rd Street at El Cajon Boulevard in the Kensington/City Heights area.
  • Fairmount Avenue at University Avenue in City Heights.
  • Fairmount Avenue at Orange Avenue in City Heights.
  • El Cajon Boulevard at Normal Street in University Heights.
  • Cleveland Avenue at Washington Street in the Hillcrest/University Heights area.
  • Heritage Road at Otay Mesa Road in Otay Mesa.
  • 33rd Street at El Cajon Boulevard in the Normal Heights/City Heights area.
  • 32nd Street and Harbor Drive in Barrio Logan.
  • 43rd Street at University Avenue in City Heights.
  • 4th Avenue at A Street downtown.
  • Ash Street at Front Street downtown.
  • 1st Avenue at A Street downtown.
  • 5th Avenue at Cedar St. downtown.
  • 42nd Street at University Avenue in City Heights.
  • 16th Street at Broadway downtown.
  • Deep Dell Road at Paradise Valley Road in the North Bay Terraces/South Bay Terraces area.
  • Fashion Valley Road at Hotel Circle North in Mission Valley.
  • University Avenue at Winona Avenue in City Heights.
  • 32nd Street at National Avenue in Memorial.
  • 3rd Avenue at A Street downtown.

    When an intersection is selected it will be posted with signs warning that cameras are present “so people will know what’s going on,” Fuentes said.

    The theory is that when people see the signs, they won’t risk running the lights, Fuentes said.

    The cameras, which cost about $50,000 each, will be installed and maintained by U.S. Public Technologies. The firm will not charge for the cameras. And if the cameras are kept for two years, there is no charge to the city for installing and maintaining them.

    Instead, United Technologies will get up to $25 of the fine paid by violators. If the city cancels the program after the first-year test period, it would have to pay United Technologies $150,000.

    El Cajon is installing similar cameras at five targeted intersections within the next two weeks under a pilot program run by U.S. Public Technologies, said El Cajon associate traffic engineer Trev Holman.

    San Francisco and Los Angeles have also started similar pilot programs, Fuentes said.

    In Los Angeles, cameras were installed at intersections along the Metrorail’s Blue Line where motorists were running both red lights and rail crossing guards, King said.

    Since then, the number of accidents has dropped by 92 percent at those intersections, King said.

    So far, the plan in El Cajon has prompted few complaints, aside from a few people who grumbled about having their picture taken without their permission, Holman said.

    “All we’re trying to do is reduce accidents,” Holman said. About 11 percent of accidents in El Cajon are caused by people running red lights.

    Fuentes said he had no firm estimate for San Diego, but 11 percent sounded low. “In some places, it ranges up to 30 percent.”

  • Cop car’s speed in fatality within law | Police say it topped posted limit, though

    A San Diego police officer whose patrol car hit and killed a jaywalker Sunday night was exceeding the posted speed limit by at least 10 mph, authorities said.

    But the officer did not violate any traffic laws, said traffic Sgt. Mike Healy, explaining that all motorists are permitted to exceed limits on city streets up to 55 mph if road conditions are safe.

    “The speed limit is suggested,” Healy said. “That doesn’t mean that’s what the speed limit is. If it’s safe to go 50, you can go 50. Most people don’t realize that.”

    The officer was on his way to a nonemergency domestic violence call on Balboa Avenue near Genesee Avenue at 10 p.m. when a pedestrian suddenly appeared in his path. The cruiser’s lights and siren were not activated.

    Investigators estimated the officer’s speed at between 50 to 54 mph in a 40 mph zone. The conditions at the time of the accident appeared to be safe for the officer to travel at that speed, Healy said.

    “The pedestrian was crossing in midblock in violation of the law,” Healy said. “He had been shopping at Ralphs (grocery store) and had pushed his cart up and over the center island and into the path of the police car.

    “There’s no gross negligence on the officer’s part. Most of the witnesses said he wasn’t speeding.”

    Officers may exceed all speed limits when they turn on their lights and siren. The officer in this case had not done so because he was not en route to an emergency, Healy said.

    The name of the man who died has not been released while authorities inform his relatives of his death. The officer’s name has also not been disclosed.

    Healy said the investigation will be completed within a week.