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LAPD Mourns Loss of Red Light Cameras

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It's been more than two months since the Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted to ditch the city's widely unpopular -- and admittedly costly -- red light camera program.

Now it's back to the drawing board for the city's politicians, charged with the daunting task of reducing fatal traffic accidents in a city where death by automobile is virtually a daily occurrence.

Luckily, there are no shortages of ideas.

Extending yellow light times at problematic intersections and adding an extra second of four-way, or "all-red," time are among the opinions that have bounced around the council chamber. Thus far, these ideas have incited little more than political discourse.

In the interim, the void left by the photo red light "experiment" could negatively impact the city's ability to police its perilous intersections.

While in operation, Los Angeles' red light cameras functioned as an extra pair of eyes for the city's police force, according to Los Angeles Police Department Lieutenant Ron Katona.

"It wasn't about making money, getting somebody and making [his or her] life miserable," said Katona, who worked on the LAPD red light camera program. "Our primary job is traffic enforcement... and the photo red light program was an extension of that objective."

Los Angeles' 32 red light cameras were responsible for recording an average of 45,000 traffic violations annually, Katona said. To put that in perspective, that's 20 percent of all moving violations issued by the LAPD each year.

Their primary purpose, however, was always to tackle Los Angeles's high number traffic fatalities.

Roughly 250 driving-related deaths occur in Los Angeles each year, making the city one of the county's deadliest for motorists, second only to New York City, according a 2009 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report.

But Los Angeles' second place finish may be misleading.

Angelenos are twice as likely to be killed in similar accidents than New Yorkers. For every 100,000 Angelenos, more than six are killed in traffic accidents annually, the report said.

Los Angeles' burgeoning number of motor vehicles doesn't help the stats either.

There were just under seven million motor vehicles registered in Los Angeles County as of January 1, 2007. Of those vehicles, roughly 2.5 million are registered in the City of Los Angeles, according to the California Dept. of Motor Vehicles.

It's essential to note, however, that not all fatal accidents in the city occur by running red lights, said Bruce Gillman, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Dept. of Transportation.

"[They] run the gamut of a hit and run, two cars colliding and, obviously, they are not always at intersections," he said.

But the numbers are significant. Nationwide statistics indicate that roughly 1,000 people are killed and another 200,000 injured in the United States as a result of a motorist running red lights, according to the LAPD.

Neither the LAPD nor the Dept. of Transportation would comment on whether disbanding the red light camera program was the right idea. They say that's a decision for City Hall.

Jay Beeber of advocacy group Safer Streets L.A. praised city council's decision to ax the red light camera program.

"At a properly engineered intersection, you do not need red light cameras," Beeber said. "I don't believe they can do what they claim to do... maybe they scare some people from running the light. Some others will probably speed up."

"When you get down to the nitty-gritty, it just can't work that way," Beeber said.

Extending the length of yellow lights and adding an additional second to the "all-red" time at problem intersections would reduce Los Angeles' high volume of fatal traffic accidents immediately, Beeber said.

However, Dept. of Transportation officials claim that changing traffic signal time is not simple as it sounds.

The majority of Los Angeles' traffic signals are managed by a sensor-based traffic system designed to optimize traffic flow. The system has united almost all of the city's 4,400-lighted intersections under one control apparatus in the nearly 30 years it has existed.

"What the city does, unfortunately, is that they calculate what the all red phases should be and then shave off a second," Beeber said.

The Dept. of Transportation argument, Beeber said, is that it takes a second for the cross traffic to start up, negating any need for extra second of all red time, and thus increasing traffic flow.

"It's not a wrong argument, but it doesn't take into consideration anyone who is approaching the intersection not from a stopped position," Beeber said. "They do not have a start-up time."

Beeber, who campaigned hard against the city's red light cameras, is adamant about extending yellow light and all-red times for the city's problematic intersections.

"You look at the intersections that have a higher than average number of red light collisions over eight years. That's where you start making your changes," he said.

Beeber has even offered his own expertise to the Dept. of Transportation. He said they've yet to take him up on his offer.

From LAPD's perspective, what's next for the city's intersections is out of their hands.

"The debate over increasing the yellow time, the all-red time... that's actually a DOT issue. We can't speak to that," Katona said.

Gillman's response was that the Dept. of Transportation "routinely examines signal timing of each intersection as they install new equipment or left-hand turn lanes, or even now while we are updating the entire ATSAC sensor-based traffic system in the city of Los Angeles."

Regardless of future plans, it's unlikely that the city will reinstate its red light camera program.

Vague verbiage of the program made the $446 fine for running a red light nearly impossible to enforce. And once the news of enforcement loopholes surfaced, the program was basically running on borrowed time.

"From where I am sitting, Los Angeles will not have another photo red light program in the future," Katona said. "There is a lot of opposition to that type of enforcement. Now, whether it's good or bad, is beside the point. We work for the city. We are city employees."

Los Angeles' red-light camera program may be dead, but its treacherous city intersections remain some of the most lethal in the country. What the city plans to do about it remains unclear.


Benjamin Gottlieb is a graduate student at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which has partnered with KCET-TV to produce this blog about policy in Los Angeles.

The photo used for this piece was taken by Horia Varian and acquired under Creative Commons license.

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