BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor
San Mateo has finally pulled the plug on its red-light cameras — about 10 years too late, in my opinion.
In January 2009, the Post received a tip that the yellow light was set too short at an intersection monitored by a red-light camera in San Mateo. Drivers were getting caught in the intersection unexpectedly and given tickets.
So a Post reporter set up a video camera that records 30 frames every second and recorded the stoplight cycle. He then checked the recording frame by frame and discovered that, indeed, the yellow light was shorter than federal regulations.
Then we contacted an outside expert to check our work to make sure our conclusions were correct.
They were, and we printed the story.
The reaction from the San Mateo’s police and public works departments was immediate. They said our story was wrong, and the yellow light was set correctly. Case closed.
The insinuation from city officials was that the Post was irresponsible and that we were just looking for a sensational headline.
Their quick response surprised me. I was hoping they would replicate our method of measuring the duration of the yellow light before declaring our research to be incorrect.
Why not check our results?
They admitted they didn’t field test the lights by going outside and actually measuring their duration to see if they were accurately timed.
The speed with which they denied our report, and the fact that they didn’t try to verify our conclusions, made me suspicious.
Maybe I’m naive, but I thought the job of police was to get to the truth.
In November 2015, NBC Bay Area did substantially the same story we did — clocking the yellow lights at the same red-light camera intersections in San Mateo. They too found the yellow light was set too short.
This time, instead of a quick denial, San Mateo threw out 948 tickets and said it would be setting the yellow light to the correct amount of time.
You’d think that after these two reports, Police Chief Susan Manheimer and other city officials would go to great lengths to ensure the yellow light was timed correctly.
San Mateo’s third strike
But on July 11, San Mateo officials admitted it happened again. They issued a press release saying the yellow light had, once again, been set too short on a stoplight monitored by a red-light camera. The city said in a statement that the light at Saratoga Drive and Hillsdale Boulevard had been “inadvertently” set to 3.4 seconds when the state minimum is 3.6 seconds.
As a result, the city said it would be throwing out 985 tickets issued between Dec. 4 and May 20.
Nobody at City Hall or the police department was fired over this. All that happened is that the city canceled its contract with the company that runs the cameras, Redflex, whose former CEO went to prison in 2017 for bribing Chicago officials to win contracts. It’s a wonder the city of San Mateo continued to do business with that company after the CEO’s guilty verdict.
A local government fad
Red-light cameras were a municipal government fad in the early 2000s. Cities saw them as devices that would both reduce accidents and bring in revenue.
The fad peaked in 2012 when 540 cities and counties were using red-light cameras, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Menlo Park, Redwood City, San Carlos, Belmont and Cupertino have all shut down their red-light cameras. San Mateo was the last mid-Peninsula city to stick with them. They still operate farther north in Daly City, Millbrae and San Francisco.
Public opinion is very much against the cameras from what I’ve gathered. I think people would rather get a ticket from a real police officer, who can exercise discretion and sometimes give out a warning with a lecture. Most cops don’t care how much revenue a city brings in, they’d rather save somebody’s life by persuading them to drive more safely in the future.
Another problem is that if you tried to challenge a red-light ticket in court, you wouldn’t have the right to face your accuser, as is required by the Constitution. That’s because the accuser is a machine. Sure, somebody from the police department would show up at the court hearing to say the machine was running correctly, but how do you challenge that?
And lawyers questioned whether it was legal for the city to serve tickets on citizens through the mail, rather than in person. Is a summons valid if it’s sent through the mail? Usually, the answer is no. But the courts in San Mateo County said it would be OK in the case of red-light tickets. However, in 2011, the Superior Court in Los Angeles County decided the mail summonses weren’t valid — and if a motorist didn’t show up in court, there would be no consequences.
Then there’s the suspicion that the city is simply using the cameras to increase revenue. In the fiscal year that ended in June, San Mateo’s portion of the tickets was $742,645. After paying Redflex its $239,000 fee and funding the other costs of the red-light camera program, the city’s profit was $266,986.
There’s even an income inequality argument against red-light cameras. The tickets, at about $500 each, have a more devastating impact on a poor or middle-income family than they do on the wealthy. Is there a better way to improve a driver’s behavior than literally taking food off the table?
Safety argument doesn’t hold up
Supporters of red-light cameras have argued that they reduce T-bone crashes by people running the light. But studies have shown that over time, the number of rear-end crashes caused by people trying to avoid a photo ticket surpasses the T-bone crashes. In San Mateo, the number of accidents at the red-light camera intersections are higher now than they were when the cameras went in.
“These cameras are simply not having the same effect on improving drivers’ behaviors as they once were,” San Mateo City Manager Drew Corbett said in his announcement about dropping the cameras. “We believe focusing our efforts on uniformed patrols and education will have a greater benefit.”
It’s too bad that it took a decade for the city to reach that conclusion.
Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Monday. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.