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Status Report, Vol. 37, No. 9 | October 26, 2002 Subscribe

Audit finds California red light cameras work but lack oversight

California's auditor released a report in July on the effectiveness and structure of seven red light camera programs operating in the state. Cameras "have contributed to a reduction of accidents; however, our review of seven local governments found weaknesses in the way they are operating their programs," the auditor reports.

In general, the audit is more important for what it doesn't find than for what it does. For example, it doesn't find that camera programs are generating large amounts of revenue. Nor is there evidence that yellow signal timing has been changed, as some critics have charged.

The financial status of only two of the state's seven camera programs is break-even or better, the auditor reports. This contradicts charges that raising revenue is a main purpose of installing cameras.

At the same time, the auditor found inadequate governmental oversight of the contractors and vendors responsible for the day-to-day operations of the programs. Citing a lack of legislative leadership, the auditor called for more detailed requirements on how local governments should supervise their programs.

Red light camera programs are authorized by California law. However, the state leaves it up to officials in local jurisdictions to decide how to run their individual programs. The result is widely disparate oversight of the programs.

The auditor recommends stronger oversight to avoid further legal confrontations, such as the San Diego case that resulted in the dismissal of about 300 tickets. In this case the court found the red light camera law constitutional but ruled that the city wasn't effectively controlling the operation of its program by a contractor. The program subsequently was suspended, but the city council voted to reinstate it and is addressing the issues raised by the court.

The auditor suggests the development of guidelines for selecting red light camera sites and for addressing traffic engineering and light timing issues as alternatives to camera enforcement at problem intersections.

The findings of the report on the effectiveness of camera programs are similar to the Institute's. The auditor found crash reductions of 3 to 21 percent. This compares with two Institute findings — a 7 percent crash reduction according to a study conducted in Oxnard, California, and a 20 percent reduction according to a follow-up analysis that focused specifically on signal violation crashes in Oxnard (see Status Report special issue: automated enforcement, May 4, 2002).

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