BY EMILY MIBACH
Daily Post Staff Writer
After 14 years, San Mateo is pulling the plug on its controversial red-light cameras after it was discovered that a yellow light was too short, an error that is forcing the city to refund or dismiss nearly 1,000 tickets, officials said Thursday.
The city is also dumping the cameras because the cameras are no longer stopping motorists from running the red light, according to City Manager Drew Corbett.
In May, it was discovered there was a problem with the yellow light timing at southbound Saratoga Drive and East Hillsdale Boulevard. The timing of the yellow light was altered because of a construction project that required changes to the stoplight. However, because of the change, the yellow light was 0.2 seconds too short from Dec. 4 to May 20, which meant that drivers weren’t given enough time to stop for the red light.
As a result of the error, the city will be dismissing or refunding the 985 tickets that were issued between Dec. 4 and May 20.
This isn’t the first time the yellow light on a San Mateo red-light camera was set too short.
In 2009, the Post used video equipment to determine that the yellow lights at Hillsdale and Saratoga were set too short. Police and the Public Works Department denied the report.
Then in 2015, NBC Bay Area timed the lights at the Saratoga-Hillsdale and Norfolk Street-Hillsdale intersections and also discovered the yellow light was too short.
This time, instead of denying the report, the city threw out 948 tickets and re-set the yellow lights.
Once a hot trend for city governments
Red-light cameras were a fad for cash-strapped governments in the early 2000s, though cities insisted they were installing the devices to improve safety, not to bring in more money.
Gradually, though, cities discovered the cameras weren’t reducing accidents.
One by one, cities dropped the cameras. Redwood City, San Carlos, Belmont and Menlo Park are among the mid-Peninsula cities that have dropped the red-light cameras.
San Mateo has also discovered that, after people get used to the cameras, they no longer deter accidents caused by red-light runners.
Red-light running increased
When the cameras were first installed in San Mateo, people running red lights decreased by 25% in the first five years, falling from 15,898 in 2005 to 11,797 in 2010.
Between 2010 and 2014, an average of 11,910 drivers per year ran red lights at the intersections with cameras. However, in 2015, the number of red light runners began to go back up. By 2018, 18,133 people ran red lights at the intersections with cameras.
Despite having 18,133 red light runners last year, the city only ticketed 4,989 people. This is because of stringent state laws that require police to positively identify the driver and mail the ticket to the driver within 15 days of the violation. In cases where it is harder to identify the person driving the car, or whose car ran the light, the city often runs out of time to send the ticket.
“These cameras are simply not having the same effect on improving drivers’ behaviors as they once were. We believe focusing our efforts on uniformed patrols and education will have a greater benefit,” Corbett said.
For the financial year of July 2018 to June 2019, the city’s portion of the tickets brought in $742,645 to the city.
But the program has costs. First, the city has to pay the company that operates the cameras, Redflex. They got $239,100.
Then the city had to pay a full-time employee and several part-timers to run the red-light program. That was an additional $236,559 in expenses.
After paying those costs, the net revenue of the program to the city was $266,986.
On Monday, City Council is scheduled to vote on canceling its contract with Redflex. Cameras are planned to stop operating in October.
After that, the only Peninsula city with red-light cameras will be Millbrae.