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September 26, 2007
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LA cameras let 40% of red-light runners off the hook

By Rachel Uranga
The Daily Breeze

LOS ANGELES Los Angeles' $15 million high-tech camera system designed to catch red-light runners let four in 10 violators off the hook last year because the drivers couldn't be identified, according to police data.

While officials had hoped the cameras would result in a citation rate as high as 80percent, critics question the gap and note that the project is now nearly five months behind schedule with only 26 of 32 cameras in place.

And as of April, the city has lost at least $1.1million because of the unissued citations.

"If this is about public safety, why are a large percent of the violators getting away with no consequences?" said Los Angeles Police Commission member Alan Skobin. "We need to see a better job is being done."

Police say they have made progress in the past few months in finding the drivers and ticketing them. They also note that glare from windshields and license plates interferes with about 2 percent of the images.

But they emphasize it's not the technology that is allowing violators to get away with running red lights. By far the biggest obstacle to ticketing violators, they say, has been outdated or unidentifiable car registrations.

Citywide from May 2006 to April 30 this year, police were able to cite just 10,882 of the 18,035 violators caught on tape, according to a report released last week by the civilian Los Angeles Police Commission.

"There are certain pockets of the city that those numbers are much higher than other parts of the city," said Sgt. Matthew MacWillie, who coordinates the effort for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Police say the bulk of violators who weren't ticketed were driving vehicles registered to people who no longer own them.

Under state law, car owners are required to have insurance when they register a vehicle. But police suspect that some owners fail to register because they can't afford or didn't want to buy insurance.

Some drivers also sell their cars to uninsured motorists who simply don't bother with registration.

While police say they don't have a precise breakdown of how many violators captured on camera were unregistered or uninsured, officials estimate that about 25 percent of Los Angeles County motorists could be uninsured.

LAPD officials acknowledge that the cameras are falling short of the original goal of a 70 percent to 80 percent citation rate, but said they have been getting closer - nearing two-thirds as of August.

"This system works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It works in hot and inclement weather," MacWillie said. "It frees up a motor officer to work in other areas."

Perched atop signal poles at some of the city's most dangerous intersections, the multiple cameras take three seconds to four seconds of video at 30 frames a second.

One camera zooms in on the front license plate and the driver, then turns as the car zooms off. Another camera catches the entire car speeding through the intersection.

Violators receive a ticket in the mail, and they can view the evidence online.

Once a plate is captured, the LAPD contacts the last recorded registered owner. But the department can't cite them for another driver's offense.

For each $381 red-light ticket given, the city coffers add $157.19, according to the LAPD.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Council members, who frequently appear at news conferences to unveil the new cameras, have spotlighted the gadgets for making the city's clogged streets safer.

"Regardless if it's at 60 percent or 80 percent, it's a far cry from not having any police officer at the intersection," said Councilman Tony C rdenas, who has been monitoring the program's success.

But the effort has been stumbling since its inception.

Before the cameras were even installed, a bid for the contract set off a high-profile lobbying battle and the city turned off the prior red-light camera system as the contract expired.

Questions arose about the financial stability of Rhode Island- based Nestor Traffic Systems, which built it. And earlier glitches included out-of-focus videos and poor timing.

The company says the slip-ups are behind it.

"You are always going to have some number of plates that you can't retrieve, or you have mismatches because of various issues," said Todd Eikinas, chief operating officer for Nestor and the architect of the system. "But as far as the technology, it's cutting edge."

But City Councilman Dennis Zine said he will request more information on how the cameras are working.

"This makes no sense. I have some serious questions about this program," said Zine, a former LAPD motor officer. "There are hundreds of thousands of dollars that aren't being collected. There is no deterrent."

But police credit the cameras with bringing traffic collisions down by 15 percent at about 10 of the city's most dangerous intersections.

"The program is doing exactly what it is intended to be doing," MacWillie said. "This is traffic safety."

Copyright 2007 Daily Breeze

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