Camera-Sly in Beverly Hills
The city wants to nab 'pass-through' speeders by installing photo radar. Foes say the plan smacks of Big Brother.
By Martha Groves, Times Staff Writer
May 16, 2006

Westside drivers, are you ready for your close-ups?

Beverly Hills wants to launch a pilot program using photo radar to nab speeders in 25-mph residential zones.

The plan might seem extreme, but Mayor Steve Webb said the city must do something novel to curb drivers who diverge from the city's increasingly congested main thoroughfares, such as Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards, onto tree-lined side streets as they make their way to jobs, schools and shopping.

"We are a pass-through city, with 300,000 cars a day passing through our city," Webb said. "It's just impossible without this technology to really get a handle on this problem."

But Beverly Hills' plan has come under attack in Sacramento and elsewhere, with opponents contending that placing cameras on side streets amounts to an invasion of privacy.

"There was a feeling among members of Big Brotherism," said Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who tried unsuccessfully to persuade fellow legislators to back a bill that would have allowed Beverly Hills to use radar equipment and cameras. "It was the underlying issue of using technology like that in a neighborhood. It just bothered them." The effort underscores the growing traffic problem in the Westside, which is in the midst of its biggest development boom since the early 1980s.

Beverly Hills has a number of major projects in the works or on the drawing board, including high-rise condos at Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards. Several other high-rise developments are also underway in nearby Westwood and Century City.

Like many cities, Beverly Hills has been struggling for years to deal with "pass-through" traffic on neighborhood streets. And, like their counterparts elsewhere, officials have had trouble finding a solution.

Beverly Hills experimented with using partial street closures, roundabouts, speed humps and other "traffic-calming" measures in the south-central section bordered by Wilshire and Olympic boulevards and Beverly and Doheny drives.

"At the end of the day, the measures were as inconvenient for the residents as for the people cutting through the residential community," said Noah Furie, who in 2003 was chairman of the city's traffic and parking commission.

Beverly Hills had insufficient funds to put motorcycle officers on all of the affected streets. Furie began researching what other cities were doing.

In San Jose, he found a possible solution in photo radar.

San Jose started its program in late 1998. Here's how it works: A trained technician sits in a parked van containing a speed-sensing radar unit and two cameras. The radar unit triggers the cameras, which take pictures of the front and back of any vehicle moving more than 10 mph over the posted speed limit. In San Jose, the program is used in neighborhoods with limits of 25 to 30 mph.

The vehicle's owner, identified through the license plate number, receives a notice in the mail.

Laura Wells, a San Jose transportation official, said photo radar has successfully reduced "the level of chronic speeders." The program's cameras photograph 400 to 500 vehicles a month. Expenses hold down any extra revenue coming to the city as violators pay fines.

"This is not a money-making program but one trying to reduce the level of speeding in residential streets," Wells said.

Impressed by what he saw in San Jose, Furie alerted Webb. A vendor demonstrated the technology in Beverly Hills, and Webb was sold. He then persuaded Kuehl to carry a bill, which Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) also supported.

The bill is modeled after, though not identical to, legislation governing the use of cameras to identify drivers running red lights. Many cities use such technology.

But the plan hit some bumps in the road. The California Assn. of Highway Patrolmen, the union that represents California Highway Patrol officers, lobbied hard against the measure, contending that Beverly Hills should simply hire more officers to patrol the streets.

Legislators also fretted when they began hearing from other cities clamoring for the technology. "The whole notion that it would cascade into a statewide thing made them feel they just wanted it to go away," Kuehl said.

Photo-assisted enforcement of traffic laws has had an uneasy history in California. In 1987, Pasadena became the first California city to use photo radar to catch speeding drivers. During the next decade, more than half a dozen other cities also began using cameras to patrol residential streets. Pasadena's pilot program as well as ones in other cities proved costly and inefficient. They were mothballed in 1997.

Webb said Beverly Hills decided to pursue state legislation to give the program more weight and provide an easier defense against any legal challenges that might arise.

Kuehl has pulled the Beverly Hills bill for this session, but Webb vows to bring it back after the city has gathered more support.

An attorney who was elected to the City Council in 2003, Webb said his involvement in residential-street safety arose from a near tragedy. Many years ago, his son's best friend was hit by a speeder and spent two weeks in a coma. The child survived, but the accident prompted Webb to attend his first council meeting.

Residents are backing Webb's push. They say they would welcome better enforcement to cut down on the traffic zooming down Benedict Canyon, Coldwater Canyon and other roads that run through their otherwise peaceful neighborhoods.

"I happen to live on a street where drivers exceed the speed limit regularly," said Louis A. Lipofsky, of the Beverly Hills North Homeowners Assn. Lipofsky said he would welcome enforcement of speed limits. But he added that any new system would have to be economical.

"We'd have to see what the numbers would look like," Lipofsky said. "If it would cost more than five motorcycle policemen, it's crazy."

As for the Big Brother worries, Furie said residents must be willing to decide that safety is paramount.

When it comes to "protecting someone's life or [ensuring the safety of] a kid playing in front of his house and running into the street to get a ball," he said, "I don't think it's a huge trade-off."