Opinion - Time For City of Elk Grove to Drop Red Light Camera Program

By Jim Lissner | March 20, 2017 |  

Special to Elk Grove News

Honorable Mayor and Councilmembers:

In the three years since I wrote to you last, the following California cities have shut down their red light camera programs: Baldwin Park, Cerritos, Davis, Highland, Laguna Woods, Marysville, Modesto, Napa, Oakland, Oceanside, Riverside, San Rafael, Santa Ana, Santa Clarita, South San Francisco, Stockton, Victorville, Vista, and Walnut.

Plus, the City of San Francisco, while not completely shutting down their program, has reduced ticketing by 76%; during the five-month period September 2016 thru January 2017 they issued just 1273 tickets compared to the average 5310 tickets they issued in the same five-month periods a year and two years before. (For comparison, Elk Grove issued 2983 tickets - more than twice as many as did San Francisco - during the five-month period July thru November 2016, the latest period for which Elk Grove data is presently available to the public.)

San Francisco's cutback was deliberate and planned, per a letter I got from City Traffic Engineer Ricardo Olea last May:

"You are correct that engineering changes are the most effective way to reduce to red light running crashes. We’ve had a long-standing record of improving intersection safety through signal upgrade improvements and signal timing changes." "We are the process of starting a new Red Light Camera contract which will reduce the total number of approaches being enforced in San Francisco, keeping some locations we believe are still needed based on crash and citation history." How did San Francisco arrive at their decision to downsize? In 2015 SFMTA staff did a camera-by-camera examination of the effect the nineteen-year-old program had had upon accidents and found that the installation of a red light camera seldom was followed by a drop in accidents. (A copy of their report is attached as Attachment B.) Instead, the drops occurred after engineering improvements like making the yellows longer, adding an all-red interval (both of which are cheap to do), the addition of an arrow for left turns, or a general upgrade to the signal. (In one instance - see page 12 of the report - staff conceded what one of the graphs shows, that the camera may have had no effect whatsoever.)

Regarding rolling right tickets. Three years ago the public had no way of knowing exactly how many right turn tickets a city issued. But now that there is an official report showing that in Elk Grove 94-percent of the tickets are for right turns (Attachment A), it would be appropriate to pass along a Dec. 26, 2014 Wall Street Journal interview of the (then) president of Redflex: "Mr. [James] Saunders suggests jurisdictions refrain from issuing a [rolling right] ticket except when a pedestrian is in the crosswalk." The headline was, "Can the Red-Light Camera Be Saved? - Money-hungry politicians discredit a hopeful safety innovation.” (A Jan. 22, 2015 column in the Dallas Morning News confirmed the statement The Journal had attributed to Saunders: "When I asked Redflex spokeswoman Jody Ryan about her boss’ comments urging cities to lighten up on rolling reds, she answered, “It only makes sense that Jim is going to say, ‘Look, we need people to be thoughtful about how they are implementing these programs and how they are issuing citations.’ It wasn’t that shocking.”)

It is also noticeable that in Elk Grove there's been no significant drop in ticketing over the years, something that is supposed to happen in the presence of heavy enforcement. Here are the annual totals of ticket for the last seven years.

2010: 8,569
2011: 7,933
2012: 8,393
2013: 8,521
2014: 7,327
2015: 8,160
2016: 7,591 (projected using eleven months of data)

A high proportion of violations by visitors could explain why the number of violations has plateaued at high levels. In 2016, as part of their attempt to renew their contract with the City of Marysville, Redflex supplied the City of Marysville a chart (Attachment D) showing the percentage of tickets received by visitors in a number of Redflex' local client towns. The chart showed that 69-percent of Elk Grove's tickets went to visitors.

Because of Elk Grove's high percentage of right turn violations, combined with that high percentage of visitors (who are unlikely to have their driving behavior improved by cameras they don't know are there), I would like to suggest that the council ask staff to identify the specific intersections where the danger from rolling right turns remains high and consider installing "blank out" signs programmed to light up and prohibit all right turns during the riskiest portions of the signal cycle. The City should not stand by and allow the running to continue unimpeded.

I would also like to suggest that before you consider the proposed three-year extension, you ask your staff to do a report similar to the one San Francisco did but with a focus on accidents arising from rolling right turns. And publish the report ahead of time, so that the public has an appropriate amount of time to review the report and comment on it.

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1 comment

D.J. Blutarsky said...

Thanks for the well-researched article. It takes courageous city leadership to willingly wean itself off of a cash-cow and admit the red light cameras are no longer good public policy--emphasis being on "courageous". Ask yourself when has Elk Grove leadership ever taken the lead on any issue of statewide or national significance? In the words of Paul Harvey, "Good Day!"

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