Imagine: It’s a rather common day and you’re running around town, knocking errands off your to-do list when all of a sudden, you see an array of bright, flashing lights as you stroll through one of the same intersections you drive through every day.
You think to yourself, “I don’t think we were expecting a lightening storm!” and then you realize that you probably set off the flashes at a red light camera. Paranoid, you go online to do some research about how long it takes for them to send you a ticket, and how much it’s going to cost you.
You wait and wait and about a week later, you get a fancy $500 notice in the mail with several pictures of you with the surprised “flash” face as you made your way into the intersection, only milliseconds after it had turned red. How can this be? You were sure you didn’t run that light!
Sound familiar? If you drive in one of the 70+ cities in California that operate red light camera systems, it’s very likely that you have experienced a similar situation, or know someone who has. Red light cameras bring millions of dollars in every year to the cities and camera companies. There are many different conspiracy theories on them, but we’ve got the inside scoop on exactly how they’re run, and how you can avoid the headache of a ticket.
A Brief History
The first red light camera systems began as early as the 1960’s and are said to have been introduced into the United States by the 1980’s. Currently, red light camera systems are run in 25 states across the US. Fines generated by citations differ from state to state, but are as high as $500 in California. Supporters of the systems uphold that the cameras are designed to reduce the number of accidents at selected intersections, but some studies contradict that claim. Opponents argue that the systems are run as a revenue generator and have little to no affect on accident reduction. It’s an on-going debate as to whether red light cameras violate constitutional laws protecting the public.
How They Work
If you haven’t already figured out, red light cameras are designed to capture photos of red light runners. More specifically, they’re installed at specified intersections to capture red light runners turning right without stopping completely (or making illegal right hand turns), turning left on red, or going straight through the intersection on a red. The cameras are placed on the corners of the intersection and are activated by induction loop sensors embedded under the road which create a magnetic field around the entrance to the intersection. When a vehicle enters the magnetic field at a speed in which it detects that you will run the light, it causes the camera systems to activate and begin recording the incident. Pictures are taken of the vehicle entering and leaving the intersection, and of the driver’s face and the vehicle’s license plate.
The photos are gathered by the police department and are then reviewed by an officer. If the officer determines that the driver did apparently commit a violation, they will send the ticket to the owner on the vehicle’s registration and file it with the courthouse to follow up. In California, the police department must issue the ticket within 15 days of the date of violation. The California court system allows defendants to contest the alleged violation in a court trial or trial by written declaration (trial by mail).
Many argue that the officer who issues the ticket and testifies in court to a disputed case is not the proper person to present the photographic evidence, since he or she is not an expert in the camera systems.
The company that owns and operates the cameras contracts with the city to operate a ticket-based red light camera program. In California, cities are bound by a vast multitude of rules and regulations when operating a red light camera program.
For example, when installing a new red light camera at an intersection, the program must follow a 30 day warning period at that intersection before issuing actual citations to violators. The city must also make proper public announcements when installing cameras at new approaches and intersections. The law requires for there to be proper signs placed at each intersection’s approach, even if the intersection has a camera at only one approach, or for the city to have proper signs at each city entrance, indicating the use of red light camera systems within the city.
If the city is not in full compliance with each regulation, their red light camera program might be deemed illegal by the judge, as has been in the case of many cities, such as Napa in 2011 when the judge deemed that the “cost neutrality” clause in the cities’ contract with the camera company was unconstitutional.
How to Avoid Them
Undoubtedly, the best way to avoid a red light camera ticket is to come to a complete stop before the limit line before the light turns red.
It’s very common for drivers who are making a right on red (which is legal in California, unless otherwise noted) to slow down, look, and turn if no one else is coming.
California vehicle code 21453(a) stats that a driver “shall stop at a marked limit line, but if none, before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection or, if none, then before entering the intersection.” Red light cameras are designed to capture drivers who turn right without completely stopping before the limit line.
A huge percentage of red light tickets that are issued are for this violation, and cost as much as if the driver blew straight through the light.
Opponents use this information to support their claim that red light cameras are simply revenue generators, arguing that making a right on red without stopping completely is not as dangerous as blowing straight through the light. Legislators in the past have tried to pass laws that separate the two incidences into two separate violations, with right on reds being less expensive than runners driving straight through the light. As it stands, the two incidences result in the same fine, and the same violation.
If You Get a Ticket
Although California’s red light camera ticket fines are debatably expensive, the California court system does make it fairly easy to contest a ticket through a trial by written declaration. This option allows drivers to contest their case through the mail, and gives drivers who are found guilty a second option to fight it in court through a trial de novo.
Many people who have received red light camera tickets have decided to contest their ticket, not because they didn’t think they ran the light, but because they simply couldn’t afford the high fines and insurance hikes from the potential point placed on their record.
Many feel that the cameras are unconstitutional and violate their rights as citizens with being recorded on camera. Until the vast majority of lawmakers and government authorities can agree that this is the case, red light camera systems will continue to be a multi-million dollar revenue source for cities.
Sara Schoonover is Vice President of Ticket Kick a California company that helps drivers get red light camera tickets and other traffic tickets dismissed by helping drivers through the trial by written declaration process. The company, which formally launched in 2010 after providing similar services since 2006, is the leading company in this space and growing rapidly.
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