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.

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.

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.