DennisBeaverJuly 22, 2006 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

I just received a notice from a city in Southern California that my car went through a red light. There is a clear photo of the license number, and it is obviously my car. The only problem is that I was not driving it that day.

The photo shows the driver, but it is impossible to identify with any degree of certainty as the image is not clear. The day and time that the ticket was issued, one of my two sons or their friends could have been driving the car, as five of them were spending a weekend in that part of Los Angeles attending a seminar on improving their LSAT test scores.

They have denied even being aware that the car apparently went through a red light, and do not remember who was driving at that time. I have spoken with the private company that handles these red light camera tickets and asked if they can send me clearer photos, but they are the rudest bunch of people imaginable and refuse to even tell me if they have better pictures.

The Police Department of that city agrees that I am not the driver, but refuses to dismiss the ticket against me unless I tell them who drove the car, and maintain that I have a legal obligation to do so. What do you recommend? What is your opinion of red light cameras, anyway? John From Kingsburg.

Red light runners are dangerous

John’s car was caught by a red light camera in a Southern California city that not long ago began an automated system to catch red light runners. Cities all across America are now using or looking into the use of these systems, as a direct response to a significant increase in red light violations.

The National Highway Safety Administration has clear research showing that each year in the U.S. red light violations cause over 200,000 accidents, more than 1,000 fatalities at a cost in the billions of dollars. The incidences have dramatically increased especially in cities with high traffic density. Accidents and deaths – up by more than 20 percent in just the past few years – all because someone ran a red light.

Whether because of a mere lapse of attention or done purposefully, police departments take these violations seriously, as public safety is the first concern. “We now see an epidemic of intentional violators, every bit as dangerous as a drunk driver behind the wheel, and frankly, if a red light camera discourages this behavior, it is well worth the expense and occasionally angry member of the public,” a traffic officer friend told me.

Robo Cop enters the picture

While automated red-light systems are fairly new in the United States, they have been around for a long time. Since 1968 more than 45 countries have used red light camera technology. It is beyond the space availability of this column to go into much detail as to how they work, but I will point out at that they have gone through several generations of development and are serious pieces of equipment. If placed in an appropriate intersection with correctly timed lights, these cameras do catch red light runners. Aside from timing issues, the major and highly vocal objection is that a police officer’s observations or discretion is taken out of the equation. But this assumes that every photo red light violation leads to an expensive ticket. That is not the case.

“Red light cameras have the ability of converting a situation where an officer might just give a verbal warning into a $350 fine and increase your insurance rates. That can happen where automated systems are improperly or incorrectly used – without careful analysis by an experienced traffic officer – and we do find a lot of officers who do not like abuse of the technology,” one of my good-guy traffic officer friends in Northern California told me when we talked about this often debated subject.

“Complaints from the public are usually less about the technology itself but more with the net result of what these Robo Cops do: They can be a virtual casino for the towns that use them, with the potential of generating thousands of dollars a day in revenue. That is one of the biggest reasons that city governments are so often in love with the equipment,” is the way another traffic officer I know puts it. He added, “City governments and many police departments realize the huge money making potential. It is like having additional officers who work without taking a break and do not ask to be paid retirement benefits.”

How they work and what you should do

“In the typical intersection setting, a digital video-camera is running at all times, and once a car enters the intersection on a red light, a series of detailed photos and mathematical calculations will be recorded and later extracted from the video. The pictures should be reviewed by an experienced traffic officer, and a decision may be reached to send out a notice of violation, with photos of the vehicle and driver sent to the registered owner. Some technical violations are not cited, such as turning right on a red after coming to a full stop, moving out of the way of an emergency vehicle, or fear of being rear-ended by a closely following car,” I was told by Julie Dixon, West Coast operations manager for Nestor Traffic Systems, one of the nation’s largest photo ticket companies.

“Many police departments now have the ability of letting you see the video over the Internet, but there are still some that require personal visits. That is important to do, especially where you were not driving the vehicle and aren’t sure who was,” she stressed.

Nestor Traffic Systems – based in Providence, Rhode Island – can set up any town with its very own, as their Web site describes – Turnkey Solution. “The cost runs around $5,000 per camera per intersection, and the very best set-ups have all four angles covered. This gives the officer – and driver – a chance to see who was driving, occupants in the vehicle, all approaches to the intersection, signal color, and any possible justifications for running the red,” Dixon told me.

“In a certain percentage of cases, the owner was not driving the car, and here is where some on law enforcement go a little nuts,” my police buddy told me. “You could have a valet parking attendant out for a joy ride with your car – totally without your knowledge – or your son or daughter ran the red, and at times the picture of the driver you are sent isn’t too clear. Here is where the pressure is on to force you to I.D. the driver,” he told me.

“But there is something that you need to know, and tell your readers this,” Officer Nice Guy told me. “While you do not have to snitch on anyone, please use some common sense. If you see a really gross red light violation, do you want this person to be driving your car? If you gave them permission, and they cause an accident, you will be on the hook. Sure to some traffic officers citations take on a much more serious role than they should – especially where no one is hurt. The police do not want to take a simple ticket and turn family members against each other. All we ask is for some common sense and doing what is right under these circumstances,” he told me.

My advice? My reader can send the ticket back, marked, I was not the driver, and explain the situation, asking the police to look at his own DMV photo. The ticket must be dismissed, as only the driver can be cited. But he might want to see the video, to be sure that the next time his kids are out, they understand the consequences of running a red light.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.