Red light cameras removed in South SF, but enforcement continues at problematic intersections 

click to enlarge red light camera
  • Brendan P. Bartholomew/Special to the S.f. Examiner
  • A red light camera is seen at the intersection of El Camino Real and Westborough Boulevard in South San Francisco.
Red light cameras may have been shut down at South San Francisco intersections, but police are targeting traffic violators through other means by stepping up enforcement on roads with high incidences of collisions.

Citing high annual costs and an apparent lack of improvement in accident and moving violation statistics, the City Council recently declined to renew its contract with American Traffic Solutions, a Tempe, Ariz. company that operated red light cameras at two locations in the city for about five years. One set of cameras monitored the El Camino Real-Westborough Boulevard intersection, while the other set monitored the El Camino Real-Hickey Boulevard intersection. While the equipment and associated warning signs have not yet been removed, the cameras are no longer operating.

The decision to end the program was made in a 4-1 vote, with Mayor Karyl Matsumoto opposing the change. She said she has often witnessed close calls at the Westborough Boulevard-El Camino Real intersection, where pedestrians have had to jump back to avoid cars making rolling right turns on red lights.

Right turns on red lights are legal at that intersection, but illegal rolling right turns on red lights figured prominently in the debate. According to Councilmen Pradeep Gupta and Mark Addiego, over 90 percent of the tickets issued by the traffic camera system were for rolling right turns on red lights, and such violations rarely result in accidents.

Gupta cited a 1994 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which found that right turns at intersections where right turns on red lights are permitted accounted for just 0.05 percent of all crashes during the study period.

Supporting the decommissioning of the camera system, Addiego argued that it yielded no safety improvements. He noted that there were 24 accidents at the Westborough Boulevard-El Camino Real intersection in 2013, but in 2008 – prior to the installation of the cameras - just 16 accidents occurred at the intersection. Meanwhile, the Hickey Boulevard-El Camino Real intersection had one fewer accident in 2013 than in 2008, according to Addiego.

Cost was another primary factor leading to the removal of the program, according to the councilmen. American Traffic Solutions charged South San Francisco $380,000 per year for its services, but after expenses, the city was making very little money from the tickets issued by the system, Addiego said. While a red light violation at either intersection carries a penalty of at least $446, the city kept less than 16 percent of that amount, Addiego noted.

“It’s not a cash cow,” the mayor acknowledged of the camera program.

Despite the elimination of the red light cameras, motorists must still contend with a new anti-speeding initiative by the South San Francisco Police Department. Matsumoto said police are using accident data to identify local trouble spots and then rotating their efforts from one accident-prone road to the next, so motorists can’t predict where the heightened enforcement will occur. Matsumoto, Gupta and Addiego have each described the new initiative as a success.

Regarding the pedestrian safety concerns that caused Matsumoto to support keeping the red light cameras, she said she hopes she won’t be vindicated by increased accidents due to having no cameras in place. “If somebody’s injured, I don’t want to have to say ‘I told you so,’” the mayor said, “There’s no satisfaction in that.”

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