Oakland’s use of red-light cameras to catch traffic violators came under legal and moral scrutiny Tuesday night, as a City Council subcommittee heard reports from police and special consultants about the effectiveness of these cameras, as well as citizen complaints about this program and the $500 tickets it produces.
After community members argued that the cameras were being used more for profit than for public safety, and Oakland police said information on the cameras’ usefulness was still inconclusive, the four council members of the public safety subcommittee postponed until February a decision on either abandoning or expanding the controversial program, which currently has 13 cameras operating at 11 Oakland intersections. The council ordered more detail be gathered on the effectiveness of these red-light cameras in reducing the number of Oakland traffic collisions compared to other intersection safety strategies such as increasing the length of yellow lights.
“My inclination is to ask that they go do some more analysis,” Patricia Kernighan said Tuesday. “”It appears to me there is a lot of uncertainty.”
Members of the public argued on Tuesday night that the cameras are being used to generate revenue rather than to reduce collisions, an accusation that would make the use of these cameras illegal under new legislation passed by Governor Jerry Brown.
Another point of contention was the high ticket price for these red-light violations—which citizens can keep off their driving record by choosing traffic school, but the traffic class costs as much as the ticket. “$500 is ridiculous,” said Oakland resident Linda Olivera, who recently successfully appealed a ticket she’d been issued. “I’m insulted by it.”
The council’s decision-making process is stalled while members wait for more evidence to support either conclusion: that the red-light cameras do, in fact, increase public safety; or rather that they simply increase red-light violations. The report OPD gave city council members does show that collision rates at intersections overseen by red-light cameras have decreased by 53 percent between the 2009 camera installations and the end of 2011, according to Oakland Lieutenant Peter Lau. But there has been “no analysis of traffic data,” Lau said, “as to whether there is any correlation between this trend and the installation of the cameras.”
Roger Jones, leader of the Fremont-based Red Light Camera Protest Group, argued that collision rates were dropping in Oakland before the installation of the cameras, and that the cameras cannot be given credit for this trend without further evidence. Jones, who since 2009 has been leading a campaign against the use of red-light cameras in Alameda County, accused the City Council of installing the cameras solely for revenue. He cited research published by Safer Streets LA, a southern California organization that collects and analyzes traffic data, which asserts that extending the length of yellow lights has a much greater impact on public safety than does installing red-light cameras.
“Extend the yellow light, and you’ll have less violations,” Jones said Tuesday. “It solves the problem in real life.”
From now until the council makes its decision in February, Oakland’s existing cameras will continue in operation while the contract with Redflex Traffic System Inc., the company that provides the cameras, proceeds on a month-to-month basis. The report to be presented in February will include a comparison of the effectiveness of yellow light extension and red-light cameras on road safety.
Complicating the accusation that the high-price tickets are being generated primarily for profit is the fact that the actual city of Oakland sees relatively little—about $130—of the fines collected by these citations. “City fees for red light violation is $130,” said Lau. “The difference between that and the $500 are various fees set at the state and county level.”
Before the council adjourned for the evening, Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan added that she would like the February report to include a specific breakdown of exactly what happens to the money from these tickets. “People have $500 of anger at Oakland,” Kaplan said, “but Oakland is only taking $130.”
s the end of the meeting, after a half-dozen Oakland residents had come to the podium to complain about the city’s use of red-light cameras, councilwoman Nancy Nadel sat forward and asked the audience: “In terms of bias, if you’re against the cameras, raise your hands if you’ve gotten a ticket.” Nearly all the audience members raised their hands.
In February, the subcommittee will make hear an a analysis of the effectiveness of red-light cameras versus other comparable techniques of increasing road safety, along with a breakdown of the smaller fees that make up the $500 ticket and a report from the Oakland City Attorney on the current legality of red-light cameras in California. Theoretically, they will then make a decision about the future of red-light cameras in Oakland.