Red Light. Green Light.

Red Light  Green Light.jpg
Engineer Bill and Sheriff John gently prodded kids my age in the 1950s to look both ways and only cross after you've seen the light turn green - advice this obligatory pedestrian, nearly 60 years later, still lives by.

L.A. drivers live - and die - by a different set of habits.

Automated "red-light cameras" were going to correct some of the worst of them - and raise some revenue for city government - but it's not working out that way. Camera systems have come under increasing criticism, largely because of their cost.

Camera systems are privatized law enforcement. Installed and operated by for-profit corporations, their revenue is guaranteed. The municipal partner gets whatever is collected above the contracted amount.

In Escondido, red-light cameras have gone from turning a $121,000 profit in FY 2007-2008 to a deficit projected to be about $150,000.

In Los Angeles, a report harshly criticizing the cost and effectiveness of the city's red-light camera deal may lead to significantly modifying the program or dropping it altogether, despite the LAPD's recommendation that the program be continued when the current contract runs out at the end of April.

The report - Safer Streets in Los Angeles - appears to validate a city audit that questioned the utility of camera-based traffic enforcement. Jay Beeber, who compiled the report, argues that slight modifications in signalization are far more likely to prevent collisions than the threat of a red-light camera citation. Lengthening yellow lights and pausing briefly for a "four-way red" can cut accidents - and citations - by up to 50 percent, Beeber contends.

The Police Commission and the LAPD have said that intersections with red-light cameras show a 63 percent decline in red-light-related accidents.

Changing signal timing isn't cost-free, but far less costly than the city's red-light camera deal. The 32 intersections with red-light cameras have operated at a $2.5 million loss over the past two years, according to the city's recent audit. The loss is due in part to the inevitable politicization of the program.

Instead of being located at the intersections with the highest number of red-light violations, the LAPD carefully divided up the cameras by city council district.

Even worse according to critics, enforcement by camera encourages scofflaws. They've ignored 56,000 citations (each with a fine up to $500) since the system became operational in 2006, depriving the city and the county court system of an estimated $11 million in new revenue.

"I just think there are too many flaws in this current system to maintain or even expand the system," Council Member Dennis Zine, who sits on the Public Safety Committee, told the Daily News. "If you get the ticket and you don't pay, you're just going to run through it again. All you do is mock the law.

Engineer Bill and Sheriff John would have been appalled.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Horia Varlan. It is used under a Creative Commons License.