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Plan Focuses on Cameras to Fight Traffic Problems : Law enforcement: LAPD proposal would use high-tech surveillance equipment to catch motorists running red lights at accident-prone intersections.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faced with growing traffic woes and a shortage of officers, the Los Angeles Police Department is forging a plan to use high-tech surveillance cameras to catch motorists who drive through red lights at accident-prone intersections throughout the city.

Following the lead of several metropolitan areas around the world, Los Angeles police are hoping that the cameras will reduce the number of collisions at intersections by raising the stakes faced by impatient drivers tempted to ignore traffic signals.

The cameras, which would be mounted in bulletproof boxes, can photograph drivers and their license plates as they cross an intersection against a red light. Violators, who will be ticketed by mail, face fines of $104.

Authorities in New York and Florida are using the cameras to catch violators, and officials in San Francisco, Santa Rosa and El Cajon are considering similar plans. Running red lights is the leading cause of urban auto accidents and cost $7 billion in damage, medical bills and lost work time annually, according to federal transportation officials.

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Cmdr. Art Lopez, the LAPD’s traffic coordinator, said his office is helping draft a proposal for a pilot program.

If the plan is approved by city and police officials, Lopez said, he hopes to have cameras installed at a limited number of trouble-prone intersections by early next year.

“One of the places that certainly leads the city of Los Angeles for traffic collisions is Roscoe Boulevard and Hayvenhurst Avenue [in Van Nuys],” Lopez said. “It’s the No. 1 traffic collision location.”

Los Angeles police officials hope that the cameras also deter speeders.

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Interest in using the camera system is being fueled by a state law that goes into effect Jan. 1.

Now, motorists caught on camera can be ticketed by mail for running a red light. But authorities can do little to compel drivers to pay, short of obtaining an arrest warrant--a costly procedure seldom used for traffic violations.

However, under a law written by Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Mateo), the Department of Motor Vehicles can withhold the vehicle registration of any owner who refuses to pay the fine.

Even if the owner was not driving the car at the time, the new law makes the owner responsible for identifying the driver or paying the fine.

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The concept is opposed by groups including the National Motorists Assn., a private motorists rights organization, which argues that cameras deprive motorists of their right to due process.

“You have the right to defend yourself and cross-examine your accusers,” said association President James Baxter. “But how are you going to be able to confront a camera?”

Baxter said he believes cities use the cameras to generate revenues from fines, without proof that they make intersections safer.

Under the Los Angeles plan, motorists would be warned by signs, which police hope will act as a deterrent.

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Those ignoring the warnings can be caught on a camera that snaps two photos, one showing the driver and the other the front license plate. The cameras, which also can be installed to shoot pictures of rear license plates, are programmed to wait between two and five seconds before taking a photo.

That delay will eliminate problems that had plagued a system installed by Pasadena police in the late 1980s. The system was scrapped after a host of technical problems rendered the pictures virtually useless.

The current technology is successfully being used by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has installed cameras along the Blue Line route between Los Angeles and Long Beach to cite motorists who ignore lowered gates at railroad crossings.

MTA officials found that over a seven-month period, traffic violations at two rail crossings dropped 92%, from one every hour to one every 12 hours. The accident rate also decreased 72%.

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