Cars pass under a red light camera at Betteravia and Miller roads Thursday. The grace period for stoplight runners has ended and citations are now being issued. //Len Wood/Staff

A camera-based system to catch motorists running red lights shifted into high gear Thursday in Santa Maria.

Errant drivers who are caught going through the red at Miller Street and Betteravia Road now can expect a traffic ticket - instead of a warning - to follow them home.


A legally required 30-day trial period that ended Wednesday caught nearly 150 violators, who received warning letters in the mail, said Sgt. Rico Flores of the Santa Maria Police Department.

With those numbers in mind, city officials are confident the program will work well into the three-year contract with Nestor Traffic Systems, which operates the cameras from Rhode Island. The City Council approved the contract in October.

On May 21, the city activated the cameras - one that detects on-coming vehicles, one that photographs the driver and license plate and one that video records the violation - for each of the four directions at the intersection.

In the following 30 days, city engineers worked with Nestor crews to “fine-tune” the system, said David Beas, a city senior civil engineer.

“There weren't any major glitches,” he said. “Just minor fine-tuning of things like focusing and alignment of the cameras.”

During the 30 days, the cameras noted about 200 possible violations, of which 150 were actual red-light violations, Flores said.

Beas said the discrepancy was mostly attributed to the “detector” cameras being set to a high sensitivity level, causing them to activate to the movement of shadows, pedestrians or bicyclists passing through the intersection. The cameras should be working fine now, he added.

A process that could take 10 days or less to complete starts when a motorist runs a red light, Beas said.

The photo and video are transmitted electronically to Rhode Island, he said. Nestor staff members process the information and send it via e-mail to the Santa Maria police within a day.

An officer at the Santa Maria station reviews the “evidence” and must determine whether the violator will be issued a ticket, all of which is done with the click of a button, Beas said.

Upon accepting the evidence, Nestor prepares a court package that is mailed out to both the Santa Barbara County Superior Court and the violator's residence. The package is sent out via certified mail, he added.

Violators can be fined $396, Beas said, and some of the money goes to city coffers to pay for the program, which will cost Santa Maria $4,460 for first-approach cameras and $4,170 for additional-approach cameras each month.

Nestor has given the city a 60-day grace period to allow for the first citations to be issued. City officials have said the program is not designed to make money but rather curb red-light violations.

Santa Maria is the first city in Santa Barbara County to have a red-light camera program. City traffic data show nearly 40,000 vehicles go through Miller and Betteravia.

As a legal safeguard, the city has also installed signs throughout nearby streets warning motorists that the cameras are watching.

Luis Ernesto Gomez can be reached at 739-2218, or lgomez@

June 22, 2007