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LAPD Eyes Cameras for Red-Light Runners : Safety: Device can capture driver, license plate on film. Officials hope to reduce crashes at dangerous intersections.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faced with growing traffic woes and a shortage of motor 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 cities around the world, the LAPD is hoping that the camera technology will reduce the number of collisions at intersections by raising the stakes facing impatient drivers who may be 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 would be ticketed by mail, would face fines of $104.

Authorities in New York and Florida are already using such 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 causes $7 billion worth of 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,” Lopez said. “It’s the No. 1 traffic collision location.”

Police officials hope the cameras will also deter speeders, particularly in the San Fernando Valley, which has been plagued by deadly crashes. So far this year, 110 people have died in accidents on Valley streets, Detective R. S. Uber said.

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“There is no doubt it would be great for us out here,” said Capt. Harlan Ward, commanding officer of the Valley Traffic Division.

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

Currently, 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.

But under a new law written by state 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, said Steven Schnaidt, a consultant to the Senate Transportation Committee, which Kopp chairs.

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Even if he or she is not driving the car at the time, the owner is responsible for identifying the driver or paying the fine, according to the new law.

“This business of running red lights has become one of the most common and flagrant traffic violations there is,” Schnaidt said. “This is one way to address a problem we think is a lethal one.”

Schnaidt said the legislation was opposed by the California Assn. of Highway Patrolmen, which advocated hiring more officers instead of buying cameras.

Others object on constitutional grounds.

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James Baxter, president of the National Motorists Assn., a motorists’ rights group, said that using cameras to issue citations deprives motorists of their right to due process.

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

Baxter, whose group has been credited with organizing the effort to repeal the 55-m.p.h. national speed limit, said the cameras do not account for motorists stuck unexpectedly in an intersection because of traffic.

“It’s arbitrary,” Baxter said. “It takes judgment away where judgment should be allowed.”

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

If cameras are used in Los Angeles, motorists will be warned by signs, which police hope will act as a deterrent.

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

That delay is designed to eliminate problems that had earlier 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.

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Under the system being considered by Los Angeles officials, the date, time and location of the violation would be superimposed on the photo. The pictures would be viewed by a police officer, who then would sign the citation and forward the material to a local court.

The courts would then notify the registered owner of the car, who can either pay the citation or challenge it.

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

“We are very, very happy with them,” said Linda Meadow, manager of system safety for the MTA. “We’ve found they are a deterrent that actually reduces accidents.

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Meadow said that over a seven-month period, traffic violations at two rail crossings in Compton dropped by 92%, from one every hour to one every 12 hours. The accident rate also decreased by 72% over a 12-mile stretch of track south of Downtown.

The success has prompted MTA officials to embark on plans to rotate 10 cameras among 17 intersections. Police officials were given a presentation last month on the cameras and the success of the MTA program.

The cameras can be leased, or purchased at a cost of $50,000 each. Installation is extra. But Lopez believes the city could recoup the costs through citation charges.

The technology is currently used in at least 40 countries around the world, with 1,500 cameras in use for red light enforcement alone, said Alan Viterbi, chief executive officer of U.S. Public Technologies Inc., the San Diego-based company whose cameras are being used by the MTA.

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In Southern California, cameras have been used mostly to monitor traffic flow by officials who have been, so far, wary of incurring public resentment over a so-called Big Brother approach to traffic enforcement.

But proponents of the technology contend that it does not invade the public’s privacy.

In fact, “this is a far more objective form of law enforcement because the cameras don’t care who you are,” said John Murray, project manager for U.S. Public Technologies.

Prof. Marcus Felson, a crime prevention specialist who teaches at USC and the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice, said the automated cameras differ fundamentally from George Orwell’s novel “1984,” which describes a society in which authorities monitor citizens by installing cameras in their homes.

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“Your home may be your castle, but the intersection isn’t,” Felson said. “In your home, you can do all kinds of things and it’s nobody’s business. But in an intersection you have no right to go through a red light and endanger the public.”

Felson said he favors using cameras to ticket red light violators. But punishment should be frequent, quick and fines should be much smaller, he said.

“What I would like them to do is call violators up right away, tell them they have a picture of them speeding and that it will be sent out with a small fine,” Felson said. “It would act as a reminder. It would even work if they mail it out with just a warning the first time.

“The trick is to get people to follow the law and not to break it so they can be punished.”

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In what may be the wave of the future, cities in other parts of the country are using cameras to catch speeders, and the city of Pasadena is considering reviving the idea.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Red Light Risk

Los Angeles police officials are drawing up a proposal for a pilot program to photograph the license plates and pictures of motorists who run red lights and are then ticketed by mail. Cameras mounted in bullet-proof boxes installed at dangerous intersections.

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HOW IT WORKS

1) Camera is triggered when traffic light turns red. Sensors embedded in pavement signal camera to photograph vehicle as it crosses the intersection.

2) The date, time and location of the violation is superimposed on the photos.

3) The pictures are processed and passed onto a Los Angeles police officer who must sign each citation.

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4) The citations is then processed by the courts and sent out to the registered owner of the car.

5) The owner can either pay the citation, which is $104 in the City of Los Angeles, or challenge it.

6) If the owner of the car fails to pay the fine or does not identify who was driving the car when the picture was taken, then the Department of Motor Vehicles could freeze the car’s registration.

Sources: Los Angeles Police Department; U.S. Public Technologies Inc.;

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