Red light cameras — which automatically photograph drivers who run through red lights — will be coming to Santa Monica, joining cities like Los Angeles, Culver City, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood.

At city staff’s recommendation, the Santa Monica City Council voted unanimously to approve a one-year red light photo enforcement pilot program for the city at its meeting Tuesday, September 25th.

In March, staff was directed by the City Council to evaluate red light cameras and technology to determine if it is “effective and fair” and to return with a recommendation on whether or not to install cameras in the city on a pilot basis.

Red light cameras, 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.

Red light cameras are to be installed in three to six months at three intersections in the city, although the intersections have not yet been identified, said Police Chief Tim Jackman.

According to the city, an average of 4.5 percent of collisions over the past three years have been caused by red light runners.

Last year, 73 of 1,870 accidents were caused by red light runners. And in 2005, 95 of 1,796 total accidents were caused by red light runners.

Some believe that red light cameras may help reduce these percentages, including the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which says that photo enforcement cameras can be a very effective countermeasure to prevent red light running.

About 33 countries — and 250 cities in the U.S. — are using red light cameras today.

The city actually considered automated red light cameras in 1999, but some councilmembers were concerned about civil liberties issues and the accuracy of the technology.

“And at the time, automated red light enforcement was in its infancy,” said Jackman. “Since then, automated red light enforcement has been proven in a number of jurisdictions to reduce accidents at intersections where the technology is deployed.

“And of course the growing pains normally associated with the new technology have been worked out over the last eight years and today the technology is well advanced. And I think most of the objections that have been previously raised have been overcome.”

Councilman Kevin McKeown said, “It was never a concern that running a red light was not a big deal that led me to vote against this several years ago [in 1999].

“It was concerns of civil liberties. It was concerns of the accuracy of the technology, given that — at the time — some of the companies that were selling this technology were actually shortening the period of the yellow light to increase the yield of tickets because they were getting a percentage of that. I want to be very clear that, at this point, the law is that the companies don’t get a percentage of the tickets.”

Also, there was the concern of passengers inadvertently being photographed, McKeown said.

But that concern is no longer an issue.

Any passengers in the vehicle are automatically blocked out of view from being observed.

The red light camera technology focuses on only a certain area of the vehicle running the red light and the only face seen is that of the driver, Santa Monica police officials say.

Also, the photo enforcement is not random. It’s specific and detailed and provides photographic evidence of the driver’s face, the license plate and the vehicle traveling through the intersection with the red light in view.

In some cases, a brief video of the violation is even taken.

According to an international study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), photo enforcement cameras reduce red light violations by 40 to 50 percent and reduce injury crashes by 25 to 30 percent. There are also 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.

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.

“This is an important issue for us,” said McKeown. “People lose their lives every day because people run red lights.”

For Santa Monica, the total personnel startup, not including the actual photo enforcement cost, will come to about $172,000, but “we expect the program costs will actually be much less during the pilot program,” Jackman said.

City manager Lamont Ewell said he would come back to the City Council with an estimated budget and recommendations on how to fund the pilot program, as the funding has not yet been identified.

The whole process will probably take three to six months.

“I think this is a step forward for public safety,” said Mayor Richard Bloom.