Criminal Justice

Blinding Red Lights

An interview with Jay Beeber

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Jay Beeber, a San Fernando Valley writer and producer, began his uphill struggle against traffic light cameras in Los Angeles mainly out of curiosity. "I had seen a news report that said these cameras actually increased accidents at these intersections," he says. "I've never gotten one of these tickets. I haven't gotten a moving violation in probably 20 years." Yet Beeber's campaign to inform the Los Angeles City Council and L.A.'s civilian police commission about the case against traffic light cameras has come to a dramatic pass. In June the commission voted unanimously to defund the city's cameras.

At press time the city council was split between camera defenders who are cozy with American Traffic Solutions, the city's camera supplier, and a growing number of skeptics who have converted to Beeber's position. Senior Editor Tim Cavanaugh spoke with Beeber after the commission's vote.

Q: What happened? 

A: About five or six months ago, the five members of the Los Angeles Police Commission were all in favor of the red-light camera program. Now they've voted, 5 to 0, to end it. During that time, I have been providing them with information. And they're thoughtful people. They're not politicians; they're appointed, and they're really a great group of people. They looked at this issue from a scientific point of view, from an economic point of view, and they decided that it wasn't worth continuing.

Q: One piece of information you've provided is that red-light cameras actually increase the number of accidents. How is that? 

A: Red-light cameras have been shown in a number of cases to increase rear-end collisions. When a driver approaches an intersection where there is a red light camera, they may react in an unusual way. They may slam on their brakes, for example. Then the argument is, well, the person behind shouldn't have been following them so closely. But on the other hand, if somebody slams on their breaks in front of you, how much of that is your fault?

The other thing that's dangerous about them from an accident standpoint is that some people will try to speed through the intersection because they're trying not to get that ticket, as opposed to trying to drive safely.

Q: And in most cases these are tickets you wouldn't even get if there were a traffic cop watching the intersection.

A: That's correct. The rolling right turn accounts for 75 percent of the tickets and the citations issued. We looked at the California Highway Patrol's database, and looked at Los Angeles specifically, and we found that it's extremely rare for an accident to occur from a rolling right turn. So 75 percent of this multimillion-dollar program is going to try to change a behavior that doesn't actually cause accidents.

Q: Is there a constitutional issue, in the sense that your accuser is a photo, rather than a sworn officer of the law?

A: It really has to do with whether the information that they're presenting in court is hearsay evidence. The person who's collecting the evidence is not there. They are simply seeing the video and saying you committed this crime. 

Q: What's a better way to keep people from running red lights?

A: Most of these are red-light incursions at the very end of the yellow, when the light turns. They're very technical, eighth-of-a-second, quarter-of-a-second violations. And the way you deal with that is to lengthen your yellow light, make sure it conforms to a particular scientific formula. You're supposed to use the speed of the approaching traffic. In the city of Loma Linda, they lengthened their yellow lights by one second and they saw over a 90 percent drop in violations. The other thing is to have an all-red phase, when the light is red in all directions.