If you run red lights, your time may be up

S.D. to consider tougher camera enforcement
By Joe Hughes

July 15, 2006

Not counting the Olympics of course, how can four-tenths of a second possibly matter?

Well, in San Diego, it could soon make a $351 difference: a red-light ticket versus no ticket.

Right now, drivers have a grace period when they run a red light at eight intersections with enforcement cameras in the city. That tiny sliver of time 0.5 of a second may become 0.1 of a second under a proposal before the City Council on Tuesday.

Over a three-year period, that 0.5 of a second has saved 65 percent of San Diego drivers who ran a red light from getting one of those expensive tickets.

San Diego is the only city in the county that has a grace period. Eight other cities operate red-light camera enforcement programs with virtually zero tolerance.

According to a report by San Diego's traffic engineering department, the other jurisdictions have reported a reduction in violations and fewer accidents.

The report said there were about 36,500 violations caught on camera since 2003 in San Diego. About 23,500 drivers escaped the fine because of the grace period. The report said the city has not seen a reduction in violations and only a 17 percent accident reduction rate, compared with 22 percent to 70 percent elsewhere.

The City Council also will consider a request Tuesday to install seven more cameras around the city. The meeting will begin at 10 a.m. in council chambers, on the 12th floor of the city administration building, 202 C St.

San Diego could generate about $200,000 a year in added revenue if the proposal is approved. Estimated revenue for 15 sites without the grace period is $1.1 million for fiscal 2007, compared with $926,000 with the grace period.

Red-light cameras are automated systems that monitor drivers at intersections through sensors embedded in the road that measure speed of a car as it approaches.

If the system determines the car is going too fast to stop in time for the changing signal, the cameras begin filming for about 12 seconds. The cameras focus on the vehicle's license plates, driver and location in the intersection.

The cameras were first introduced in San Diego in 1998, but they were removed in June 2001, after legal challenges were made over how the cameras operated. A San Diego judge dismissed nearly 300 citations, ruling that the city had given too much control of the program to private operators.

The cameras returned two years later with a new operator and new state legislation that partially regulated the relationship between the cities and the private companies.