If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound? More to the point, if you roll past a stop sign in the woods and nobody is there to see it, do you get a ticket?
You do if you’re in one of the three Santa Monica Mountains parks overseen by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority where stop-sign scofflaws are on candid camera. The authority has set traps for unsuspecting motorists by installing video cameras at stop signs and mailing citations to those who fail to come to a complete halt. According to a recent report by Times staff writer Martha Groves, the cameras generated $2.4 million in fines in the authority’s latest fiscal year, with the ticket program accounting for 8% of its budget.
I’m among the drivers whose pockets were electronically picked, and my biggest complaint is that I don’t really have much right to complain about it. I was, without a doubt, guilty of rolling past a stop sign in Franklin Canyon Park, as snapshots I received in the mail along with my $175 ticket made clear. If I had been more sharp-eyed, I would have noticed the sign warning that there was a camera enforcement program in place, and I would have made sure to come to a complete stop. But while Angelenos are pretty well familiar with red-light cameras by now, who’s ever heard of a stop-sign camera?
Yes, I know that you should come to a complete stop at an octagonal sign even if there’s no camera present. But this particular sign in Franklin Canyon seems like it was put there as an invitation to roll through it, a lure as appealing to a driver as a curly tail grub is to a largemouth bass. The speed limit in the park is just 15 mph, and there wasn’t a soul around; my very slow rolling right turn through the sign didn’t put anybody in danger.
Is the authority guilty of entrapment? No. But informing people that they’ve committed a traffic violation weeks after the fact doesn’t do much to alter driver behavior (those instant-feedback digital signs that tell you when you’re exceeding the speed limit are more effective), and although the authority claims the camera program has made the parks safer, it hasn’t presented any accident statistics to back that up.
The authority is within its rights to use the cameras, according to an appeals court decision last month. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should; an otherwise highly worthwhile agency that works to preserve badly needed open space in the Santa Monica Mountains is trashing its own reputation by resorting to a sneaky fundraising scheme.
— Dan Turner