LOS ANGELES — In 2002, Jim Lissner was captured on camera running a red light in Culver City — an incident that has spurred 14 years of activism to rid the state of red-light cameras.
When Lissner went to court to contest his $270 citation, he expected he would see a lot of young people who drove with “lead feet.”
But what he found fueled his cynicism toward local governments and red-light camera companies.
“It was an older, middle-class crowd, not your typical law violators,” Lissner said. “It seemed like a business plan. Instead of giving tickets to young people who can’t afford them, the cameras are targeting people who are afraid that the ticket will go on their record so they won’t fight them in court.”
Lissner said the traffic cameras were set to flash on the shortest possible interval between a yellow and red light. Therefore, older people who are less likely to accelerate or hit the brakes sharply were more susceptible to getting caught in the intersection.
Now, Lissner has turned his attention toward the city of Commerce, since that city’s contract with Redflex, a company that provides vehicular monitoring technology, is up for renewal a year from now.
Lissner planned to address the Commerce City Council at its Nov. 8 meeting, urging the council to cancel the contract with Redflex when it expires.
He pointed to a report by the city of San Francisco MTA, which runs the city’s 19-year-old red-light camera program, that showed the installation of red light cameras seldom led to fewer accidents. Instead, reductions occurred after engineering changes were made, such as making yellow lights longer and adding an arrow for left turns.
On his website, Lissner shares a graph that shows around 22,000 people have received tickets so far this year from red-light cameras in Commerce.
“There can’t be that many bad drivers in Commerce,” said Jay Beeber, the executive director for Safer Streets L.A. “The cameras aren’t doing their job to scare people into abiding by traffic laws if that many people are being ticketed.”
Beeber also said red light cameras do little to improve traffic safety, as the violations they target, mainly rolling stops on right turns and left turns on yellow lights, are not the types of infractions that cause accidents.
“Nobody will be in the intersection within a second of another car’s left turn,” he said.
Although he recommends stopping the use of all red light cameras, he pointed to West Hollywood’s program, which only tickets drivers moving straight through red lights, rather than on a turn, as a example of responsible camera use.
Other Southern California cities that employ the use of red-light cameras include Montebello, Hawthorne, Lynwood and Culver City. The city of Los Angeles shut down its red-light cameras in 2011, but other agencies are operating cameras near rail line crossings.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has more than 100 red-light cameras, located at road crossings along its Orange Line busway in the San Fernando Valley, along the Eastside Gold Line light rail in East L.A., along the Expo Line light rail, which runs from downtown to West L.A. and Culver City, and along the Blue Line light rail which runs between downtown and Long Beach, according to Lissner’s website.
Some other areas identified with MTA tickets are downtown Los Angeles, USC, El Monte, South Gate and Compton.
Although the MTA’s camera system is different than the one formerly operated by the city of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department issues the tickets, under contract with the MTA.
According to Beeber, the cameras are not only activated when a motorist runs a light, but are recording the area at all times. The footage is then reviewed and citations are issued.
“Do you want to live in a society where the government captures video for technical violations and then charges people a $500 fine?” Beeber asked. “I’m sure if you followed anybody around with a video camera all day you would catch them doing something illegal.”
The fines can have a disproportionate effect on low-income residents. In Commerce, around 26 percent of residents earn an income below the poverty line, more than the state average of 22 percent.
“Think of what a $500 ticket does to somebody on minimum wage,” Beeber said.