Stop-sign cameras catch Southern California drivers off guardBy Daisy Nguyen, AP
Saturday, October 2, 2010
Stop-sign cameras catch Calif. drivers off guard
LOS ANGELES — Ashley Wilson’s mission to drive to a park above Beverly Hills and hike every morning for a week came with a cost that eclipses the burg’s famously pricey lifestyle.
After assuming that only wild creatures would witness her car roll through a remote stop sign, Wilson was stunned weeks later to get four tickets in the mail totaling $700. A hidden camera had captured her infractions on video.
“I was totally shocked,” Wilson said. “I knew there were signs there. I didn’t think they’d be that strict and be that expensive.”
The stop-sign camera is one of seven scattered in parks along the Santa Monica Mountains that have surprised Southern California road warriors used to seeing red-light cameras and speed traps on their daily drives. During an 18-month period ending May 31, nearly 35,000 citations have been issued and the parks have collected nearly $2 million.
But the nation’s first stop-sign cameras, introduced in 2007, have angered critics who think they’re another aggressive government tactic to squeeze money out of motorists.
“Enforcement of something so small to add to the revenue stream strikes me as very wrong,” said Eli Sanchez, who was nabbed twice for breezing past a stop sign at the entrance to a park overlooking the San Fernando Valley.
Traffic cameras have increasingly stirred controversy as cash-strapped cities rely on them to enforce rules of the road. Proponents say the cameras are a valuable tool for protecting public safety at a time when police departments are stretched thin, though their effectiveness has been questioned. A recent audit of Los Angeles red-light cameras found that they were not necessarily installed at the city’s most dangerous intersections.
A lawsuit seeking class-action status on behalf of several ticketed drivers contends the stop-sign cameras conflict with the state vehicle code, which require that automated enforcement systems provide a clear photograph of a vehicle’s license plate and the offending driver.
The cameras operated by Redflex Traffic Systems are activated when a sensor in the road detects a vehicle moving faster than 7 mph approaches a stop. The camera captures the rear license plate of cars that blow through a stop and an administrative ticket is issued to registered car owner.
The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, a joint powers authority governing the parks, contend the vehicle code covers public highways but not roadways through parks.
The authority insists it installed the cameras at high-traffic areas where vehicles come too close to hikers, joggers and bicyclists. There has been a significant reduction in the number of people running stop signs since the cameras were installed.
“There’s a real reason for this, it’s not jut an arbitrary sinister thing,” said authority spokeswoman Dash Stolarz.
The MRCA pays a $4,400 monthly fee for each camera operated by Redflex. Of the 34,875 citations issued, 889 were dismissed. Altogether, the authority netted close to $2 million from the program, and proceeds went toward ranger patrol, search and rescue efforts, fire protection and maintenance costs.
She said the cameras help enforce road safety that 23 rangers can’t possibly patrol in the 60,000 acres that make up the network of parks.
Still, stung drivers say they would have avoided repeated citations if they had been caught by an officer instead of a machine.
“I did break a law but I don’t think I did anything unsafe,” Wilson said. “If you get pulled over by a cop you get shaken and say ‘I’m not going to do this again.’ I had no warning between each one.”