Running a red light is the automotive equivalent of playing Russian roulette, and it costs the lives of nearly 800 U.S. motorists — red-light runners and innocent victims alike — each year.
That number comes from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which says red-light runners injure another 137,000 people.
Dozens of California cities and counties have responded by installing hundreds of cameras at key intersections to photograph cars allegedly running red lights or — in most cases — making improper right turns on red lights.
Whether the red-light cameras are aimed at saving lives or raising revenue from the tickets is, to put it mildly, a subject of intense debate. And legal and political tides may be turning against their use.
Those who fight red-light camera tickets by demanding hearings often win. They either force local authorities to verify the accuracy of the machines, which are installed and maintained by private companies that receive shares of the fines, or they claim the cameras are providing hearsay evidence.
A milestone on the legal front occurred in Orange County in May when a three-judge appellate panel, in a published decision, declared that red-light camera photos are hearsay, rather than direct, evidence and therefore inadmissible.
“The person or persons who maintain the system did not testify,” the judges declared. “No one with personal knowledge testified about how often the system is maintained.”
As word of the decision circulates, more motorists with red-light camera tickets are contesting them, cities that had been planning to install the cameras are delaying action, and the adverse reaction is taking root in the state Capitol.
The Senate has approved, 31-1, legislation by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, to impose much tighter standards on local governments that contract with the private firms for the cameras.
The measure, Senate Bill 1362, was stalled — at least temporarily — this week in the Assembly Transportation Committee after local government officials complained that its enactment would effectively wipe out the cameras’ use by giving motorists additional weapons to fight their tickets.
But the committee approved another bill that would reduce fines for illegal right-hand turns on red lights, which comprise the vast majority of red-light camera tickets.
Still another front in the battle was opened this week in Los Angeles, whose City Council has approved a boycott of Arizona businesses because of that state’s highly controversial new law on illegal immigration.
The two major companies that install and operate red-light cameras are based in Arizona. After some angst, the City Council granted an exemption so that cameras from Scottsdale-based American Traffic Solutions could continue to monitor 32 intersections in the city.