Snap of the Camera: While Cities Discontinue Red-Light Ticket Systems in Droves, Cathedral City's System Gives Out Ever-More CitationsWritten by Kevin Fitzgerald
Between June 2011 and October 2014, 32 California cities eliminated their red-light-camera enforcement systems—including the city of Riverside in September, according to watchdog website Highwayrobbery.net.
However, the system continues to operate in Cathedral City.
The city’s contract with American Traffic Solutions (ATS) of Tempe, Ariz., expired back in February, but the City Council voted 4-1 to renew the contract in May, after negotiating more-favorable terms. Still, the program remains unpopular with segments of the city’s population (as well as residents of other desert cities who regularly drive through Cathedral City), particularly those who have been captured on video and in freeze-frame images that result in costly citations.
There are three cameras, watching the intersections of Date Palm Drive and Ramon Road; Ramon and Landau Boulevard; and Vista Chino at Date Palm.
“People don’t like getting citations and having to pay fines for violations,” said Cathedral City Police Department Operations Captain Chuck Robinson. “It’s funny, because a lot of times, we get folks who don’t like the fact that they got one, but when you go back and look at the video, it’s a clear red-light violation that they were involved in. So the question you have to put to them is: ‘Do you think it’s OK to run a red light? And if you had stopped, would you have gotten a ticket?’”
Robinson said Cathedral City police receive few complaints about the system.
“I would say out of 200 to 300 citations issued per month, we get a couple of complaints,” he said. “You’d be surprised. We’ve had this system in place since 2006, and we don’t get the number of complaints that you would think based on the attention that the media and other proponents or opponents pay to the system.”
A few months ago, Cathedral City Mayor Kathy DeRosa told local TV stations that the system was worthwhile, even though it was a money-losing proposition for the cash-strapped city.
What was the rationale that drove that one-sided 4-1 vote? “The program actually worked; it did exactly what it was designed to do for us,” said Robinson. “We saw the results that we were hoping to see, which was a reduction in collisions, which means less property damage, fewer injuries and fewer response calls from public-safety agencies. Then it came down to: ‘Was it worth the price for the benefits we were getting out of it?’ When the mayor commented that it was losing money, she was 100 percent correct.”
A request for statistics supporting the claimed decrease in accidents at the intersections in question could not be fulfilled prior to our deadline, reportedly due to staff reductions resulting from city government cutbacks. However, for an Independent story first published in September 2013, Robinson offered statistics that were mixed: The figures showed that the number of accidents at the three intersections were higher in both 2011 and 2012 than they were in 2010, the first full year that all of the cameras were operational. In 2010, there were 15 such collisions at Cathedral City red-light camera intersections. In 2011, that total rose to 25 collisions. In 2012, the number decreased to 17. He also said that the first year the red-light camera was at the intersection of Date Palm and Ramon, the city saw a 30 percent reduction in the number of collisions.
Can Cathedral City afford to support potential additional costs if the system does not pay for itself by taking in sufficient violation revenues? Robinson said new contract terms with ATS should keep the system in the black.
“We used to pay $15,000 total, per month, for the system, or $5,000 per camera. Now we’ve dropped the per-camera cost to $3,500 per month, which is more than a 30 percent reduction in the system’s cost,” Robinson said.
Another element in the cost-benefit analysis is a marked increase in violations revenue since the start of 2014. According to data provided by Robinson, in all of 2013, there were 1,237 red-light-camera citations issued to drivers, while through just September of 2014, 2,181 citations had been processed.
What’s driving this sudden increase? “I’m not sure of the actual time frames (in 2013) without going back to do a bit of research, but I do know that we had quite a bit of construction going on, and I know that as a result, we did experience a lot less violation activity,” Robinson said. “Now, all intersections have opened back up, and if we’re seeing increased activity, that could be the reason why.”
The Independent reviewed data provided by the website highwayrobbery.net, which indicates that construction closures affected two intersections from July to October of 2013. However, the data also revealed that a year-to-year comparison of the months January through May—when there was no construction—showed a substantial growth in citations.
Concerned citizens can take heart, though: The upcoming Nov. 4 elections are guaranteed to result in three new City Council members, so perhaps the council will have a change of heart.
“We built into the contract a clause saying that on 60 business days’ notice, we can terminate the contract,” Robinson said.