“Red light cameras,” which photograph drivers who run red lights, are reportedly being used in 33 countries and more than 200 U.S. cities — including Los Angeles, Culver City, Beverly Hills and Pasadena — and they continue to be implemented all over the nation.

Now it appears that Santa Monica may be one of the next cities on the list to set up the cameras, as a result of a discussion at the City Council meeting Tuesday, March 20th.

City Council members unanimously voted to direct city staff to evaluate red light camera technology and return with a recommendation on whether or not to install cameras in the city on a pilot basis.

Red light camera systems, also known as photo enforcement cameras, automatically photograph vehicles whose drivers run red lights. The systems continuously monitor an intersection and the cameras are triggered to photograph any vehicle entering the intersection after the traffic signal has turned red. Traffic citations are then mailed to the vehicle owner, after a review of the photographic evidence.

The discussion at the council meeting came at the request of Councilman Bob Holbrook, who says he has been troubled by red light running in Santa Monica.

“Based upon my personal observation, I’m very concerned about the number of drivers in Santa Monica who are running red lights,” Holbrook said. “It has almost reached the point where, personally speaking, I won’t even enter the intersection if I’m the first car in line at a green light until I’ve looked both ways to make sure there’s not somebody coming through, because often there is.”

Holbrook said he had already spoken with Santa Monica Police Chief Tim Jackman and the senior command officer in charge of the city Traffic Division about the red light cameras.

“And they say, based upon their understanding and their knowledge, a very effective way of changing drivers’ behavior on running red lights is to install these cameras,” Holbrook said.

He added that he had also spoken with Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian, and that Pasadena has “installed three or four of these [cameras] in their city, and they’ve markedly reduced red light running and made safer intersections.”

Holbrook said he had discussed cameras with Santa Monica city manager Lamont Ewell and that Ewell had indicated there was a “sharp reduction” in red light running in his experience with them as city manager of San Diego.

According to an international study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), red light cameras reduce red light violations by 40 to 50 percent and reduce injury crashes by 25 to 30 percent. There are a number of other studies that indicate reduction in crashes at signalized intersections after installation of the cameras.

Red light running and the collisions and injuries that result from them have become a national safety problem, says the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which believes that red light cameras can be a very effective countermeasure to prevent red light running.

In 2003, the Federal Highway Administration reported 206,000 crashes that involved running a red light, resulting in 934 fatalities and 176,000 injuries.

In 2005, more than 800 people were killed and an estimated 165,000 were injured in crashes that involved red light running, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

At the meeting, Holbrook pointed out that technology has changed since the council last considered red light cameras several years ago.

“The technology has reached a point where there’s no guesswork,” Holbrook said. “It [the red light camera] shows clearly a car has gone through a red light and not just got stuck out there by traffic and couldn’t get out of the intersection, so it’s good to know that it’s very, very reliable.”

A red light camera system (with installation) costs approximately $100,000 per intersection, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Holbrook also pointed out that state law doesn’t allow photographic citations to be issued that show anyone in the car except the driver.

“And that was a great concern before — that people who were just riding in the car would get photographed,” Holbrook said.

Holbrook also commented that the cameras do not take pictures of everyone driving through the intersections — only those that enter on a red light.

“So it’s not out there looking and tracking us all,” he said.

Santa Monica resident Jerry Rubin spoke in support of the cameras at the meeting.

“I think it’s a good idea to have automated red lights and I don’t even drive,” said Rubin, who uses public transportation. “You know, a lot of things that are technological really don’t take away civil liberties.

“Think about it. If this is going to help public safety, I think we ought to do it. And I think Councilmember Holbrook’s proposal is ultimately fair. This is something that should’ve been done years ago, so I just urge you to approve it.”

Councilman Kevin McKeown expressed his feelings, saying, “Frankly, if you have run a red light, you have committed a violation. You’re not just somebody who’s in the street. And these cameras, if indeed the technology has improved, are taking pictures of only those who have just done something that violates the social contract we have with each other [Ö] that we go on green, we stop on red.

“It [running a red light] violates us in an extraordinarily dangerous and pernicious way, so I don’t have a civil liberties concern on this.”

McKeown pointed out that, when this came before the City Council for consideration several years ago, there were some concerns.

“One was that the cameras didn’t always capture cars that had run a red light — sometimes they were stopped in the intersection for other reasons,” said McKeown. “There was the concern of passengers inadvertently being photographed.”

There were also some concerns that companies that had installed these red light cameras deliberately mistimed the yellow signal to increase the monetary yield, he said.

McKeown said he would like to see information from staff on red light cameras and improvements in the technology to consider in a public hearing on the issue, to ensure that “this would be done accurately and specifically in a way that does protect the public from that running of the red light.”

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