Signs such as this one in Laguna Beach warn drivers about red-light cameras in the city.
Anaheim voters will decide in the November 2 election whether to permanently ban red-light cameras in their city. Measure K would bar the Anaheim City Council from allowing any red-light cameras or other automated traffic enforcement system in the city.
As it is now, if you blow through one of dozens of intersections in Orange County, a squad car with flashing lights won’t tail you.
Instead, a moving violation ticket – costing anywhere from $400 to $500 – will show up in your mailbox, complete with a picture of you at the steering wheel.
This is the kind of thing Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle does not want to see in his city. So he and the city council put Measure K on the November ballot to ban red-light cameras, even though Anaheim does not currently plan to install any.
"A lot of cities and a lot of governments are using these types of measures as revenue generators and they have lost sight of what was expressed as their original intent, which was to enhance public safety," Pringle says.
The city of Costa Mesa studied its red-light cameras last year and found that while the number of broadside collisions decreased at red-light camera intersections, the number of rear-end collisions went up.
Red-light camera opponents say the monitors swap one problem for another. They say people will brake suddenly at red-light camera intersections, causing the driver behind them to crash.
But studies support both sides. Some suggest the cameras do make some intersections safer.
"There may very well be some safety benefit of red-light cameras," Pringle says, "but I think – and many traffic engineers agree – that there are other measures you can put in place at those intersections, like delayed signal changes or other enforcement, like officers that will visually monitor the intersection, as ways to ensure safety at those more dangerous intersections."
Pringle says he was in the state Assembly years ago when California lawmakers approved a law that allowed cities to install red-light cameras.
"Back then, the cost of running a red light wasn’t anywhere near the cost it is today if you get one of those tickets," Pringle says. "In some jurisdictions, over $400 is what the citation is. And that is far and above what other citations are. In fact, it’s allowing for everybody to get a cut on the action, from the state to the local government to the private company that’s installed all of the equipment."
But in Laguna Woods, where the city council recently decided to keep that city’s red-light cameras in place, Councilman Bob Ring says the government is not using the cameras to make money.
He breaks out video of people who’ve run red lights at those intersections. They’ve collided with cars and nearly creamed golf carts. Ring shakes his head and laughs in disbelief as he watches the collisions and near-misses.
Ring says Laguna Woods installed the red-light cameras at two dangerous locations on Moulton Parkway a few years ago.
"Really, it’s an education process," he says. "For the amount of money we make, it’s not a money-driven thing. It isn’t worth it. And the amount of hassle you take. But if we can save just one life."
In the first few months, Ring says, city officials saw the number of red-light tickets drop by nearly half at the red-light camera intersections. He says the number of tickets has leveled out, but there are still fewer than before the cameras.
"When they get hit with about a $500 ticket," Ring knocks on his head as if a light bulb just went off, "It does seem to get their attention."
Ring says a sheriff’s deputy reviews every picture and video of red-light runners. He says the results come down to safety.
"Can we get you to think about what you’re doing?" he says. "And all of the lights – I hear all this about, 'Well, you cut the yellow light short.' Now they’re all set up by the state requirements because we’re too small to go to court all the time and argue about it, so we try to do everything, put it on the lenient side of everything because what we’re trying to do, it’s all about saving lives, not about giving tickets."
Some cities recently have dropped their red-light camera programs, in part because of court battles.
An appeals panel of the Orange County Superior Court ruled a few months ago that evidence from red-light cameras isn’t admissible because a law enforcement officer didn’t witness the infraction.
In December, Fullerton ditched its red-light cameras after a superior court judge ruled that the company that installs and maintains the cameras had a financial incentive to issue tickets.
Anaheim voters will decide whether their city will go down that road.
A “yes” vote on Measure K would ban red-light cameras in Anaheim. A “no” vote means it’ll remain up to the city council to decide on installing them.