Are Red Light Cameras Life Savers or Revenue Generators?

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CITRUS HEIGHTS -- When the Citrus Heights City Council voted 4-1 in favor of expanding the city's red light camera program last month, Councilman Bret Daniels got fed up.

He says the system that has been in place since 2008 is more about money than prevention.

"If you really want to do something to make things safer, get away from the revenue-gathering approach and actually get towards the behavior approach," Daniels said.

Daniels, who has a law enforcement background as a former Sacramento County sheriff's deputy, believes holding traffic an extra second to help "clear" the intersection would be a more effective approach to reducing collisions -- and less expensive.

Plus, he believes most red light violators do it unknowingly, and therefore, deserve a warning rather than a $481 ticket.

"When a red light camera pops, you're charged, you're convicted, and you're sentenced in a matter of a split second, and you take away a part of American law enforcement, which is the spirit of the law," Daniels said.

Figures released by the Citrus Heights Police Department last month show the average yearly gross revenue from its red light camera program is just under $640,000. That's more than 1,300 red light enforced tickets per year.

Yet, most of that money goes to Red-Flex, the company who operates the system. The city of Citrus Heights receives a little less than $60,000 annually.

For the department, the program works.

"We truly believe in the program. Our main focus is reducing collisions and improving roadway safety," Lt. David Gutierrez said.

Yet collision data provided by Citrus Heights police to the city council last month showed mixed results. While there was a drop in the total number of collisions at all intersections with red light cameras, between 5 percent and 65 percent, the number of injury collisions was actually up between 12 percent and 25 percent.

"For us, it's all about changing driver behavior. We hope that by virtue of someone receiving a ticket that they change their behavior and either stop speeding or no longer run a red light or a stop sign. But it has nothing to do with revenue generation. It has everything to do with roadway safety," Gutierrez said.

But a growing number of cities across the state have discontinued using red light cameras, citing a variety of reasons including cost and lack of conclusive evidence for violations, as well as reducing collisions.

More than 60 cities have decided the cameras were not worth keeping. In our regions, Roseville, Rocklin, Yuba City, Davis, Fairfield and Stockton have all gotten rid of the red light cameras recently.

Yet other cities including Citrus Heights, Rancho Cordova, Elk Grove and both Sacramento city and County all continue to use the system and stand behind it.

"Where we're positioned in the region, we're a main drag from point A to point B. Although we have 85,000 people in our city, we probably have well over 100,000 people driving through our city on a daily basis," Gutierrez said.