Report 2001-125 Summary - July 2002

Red Light Camera Programs:

Although They Have Contributed to a Reduction in Accidents, Operational Weaknesses Exist at the Local Level

HIGHLIGHTS

Red light cameras have contributed to a reduction of accidents; however, our review of seven local governments found weaknesses in the way they are operating their programs that make them vulnerable to legal challenge. Specifically, we found that the local governments:

  • Need to more rigorously supervise vendors to maintain control of their programs.

  • Do not always follow the best practice of reviewing intersections for engineering problems before installing cameras.

  • All but one would use photographs as evidence in criminal proceedings even though it would appear to conflict with the law governing the program.

  • Generally follow required time intervals for yellow lights.
Of the local governments we visited, only San Diego and Oxnard have generated significant revenue from their red light camera programs.

Our review of available data shows that red light accident rates decreased between 3 percent and 21 percent after red light cameras were installed by five of the local governments in our sample.

RESULTS IN BRIEF

Motorists running red lights are a serious traffic problem, and because it is a difficult violation for a police officer to witness and enforce at the time it is committed, the Federal Highway Administration has identified automated enforcement systems-commonly known as red light cameras-as a measure to address the problem. After the California Legislature authorized their use in 1996, several local governments implemented red light cameras at key intersections to improve traffic safety. Local governments use the resulting photographs to identify motorists who drive through red lights and send them citations. Because of the advanced technology and cost considerations involved, local governments use private vendors to provide red light camera equipment and services.

Our review found that accidents related to motorists running red lights have generally decreased where local governments have employed cameras. However, the seven local governments we reviewed need to make operational improvements to maintain effective control of their programs and comply with state law. The law mandates that only a governmental agency, in cooperation with a law enforcement agency, can operate an automated enforcement system but does not include specific requirements for carrying out this mandate. Although the law needs further clarification, we believe that to avoid the legal challenges that have affected the city of San Diego's program, local governments need to rigorously oversee the vendors that provide red light camera services. Further, we could not always determine if local governments addressed engineering improvements to the intersections they chose before installing cameras. Although the most common reason for choosing red light camera sites was traffic safety, four local governments out of the seven in our sample avoided placing cameras at some of the dangerous intersections along state-owned highways. The cities of Fremont, Long Beach, and San Diego anticipated that obtaining state permission would delay their programs and Los Angeles County indicated it did not consider state-owned highways for its program. Local governments also have differing interpretations concerning the use of photos taken. Most believe they have a legal basis for using them for purposes other than to prosecute red light violations, which appears to conflict with the enabling legislation. These and other operational weaknesses make red light camera programs vulnerable to legal challenge.

Despite operational concerns, our review of the available data shows that accidents caused by red light violations usually decrease after the introduction of red light cameras. For five local governments we visited, the number of accidents decreased between 3 percent and 21 percent after implementation of red light cameras, but accidents increased by 5 percent for the sixth. Fremont attributed the increase in accidents to higher traffic volume. Accident statistics were not available for Long Beach as the program is still too new. Statewide collision data indicates a 10 percent drop in accidents caused by motorists running red lights in areas with red light cameras compared to no change in the number of accidents in other areas. Even more telling, after San Diego suspended use of its program in June 2001, accidents caused by red light violations increased citywide by 14 percent, based on the four months of data we were able to obtain. Finally, local governments themselves make little or no profit from their programs. Only two of the programs we reviewed made significant revenues.

RECOMMENDATIONS

We recommended that local governments take several actions to ensure that they comply with state law for using red light cameras, maintain control over their programs, and minimize the risk for legal challenges. These actions include conducting more rigorous oversight of vendors, establishing shorter periods for destroying certain confidential information, developing added controls to ensure that vendors only mail authorized and approved citations, and periodically inspecting red light camera intersections. Before installing red light cameras, local governments should consider whether engineering measures would improve traffic safety and be more effective in addressing red light violations. Finally, to avoid overlooking dangerous intersections that are state owned, local governments should diligently pursue the required state approvals, despite any resulting delays to installing their cameras.

To remove the ambiguity regarding whether a local government or a vendor is operating a red light camera system, the Legislature should clarify the law to define which tasks a local government must perform to operate a red light camera program and which tasks can be delegated to a vendor providing red light camera services. Further, to eliminate ambiguity regarding the admissibility of evidence, the Legislature should consider clarifying the enabling legislation to state whether photographs taken by red light cameras can be used for other law enforcement purposes.

AGENCY COMMENTS

Los Angeles County, the cities of Oxnard and San Diego, and the city and county of San Francisco generally agreed with our recommendations and provided some clarifying comments in their responses. Fremont took exception to our analysis of the change in accidents before and after the installation of red light cameras. Long Beach agreed with our recommendations, but its city auditor took issue with the report for including a high-level summary of our findings and recommendations. Finally, the city of Sacramento disagreed with several of our findings, most notably that it needed added controls to ensure that the vendor does not mail unauthorized citations.


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