Getting caught by a red-light camera can be pricey -- especially in California. With fees, traffic school and court costs, a single ticket can cost $500 or more.
More than a dozen states have banned those cameras, as voters see them as unreasonable revenue generators for hard up local governments. But some people argue these devices help curb traffic accidents.
"These are machines," says substitute teacher Robert Zirgulis. "They don't care. You go one foot over the line -- bam, $500."
He's been campaigning against the 18 red-light cameras set up in Culver City, west of downtown Los Angeles.
"They are designed to get as many tickets as possible," Zirgulis says. "They're not designed to make it safe to drive."
Zirgulis made an anti-camera crusade the basis of his bid for the local City Council, and he's been talking to drivers like Michael Fucci at busy intersections.
"I just paid $540 for a ticket last month for a red light," Fucci says. "It's completely preposterous."
Motorist Neil Wax stopped to say he got a point on his driver's license, and his insurance rate skyrocketed after two red-light cameras caught him in the act. He says they ended up costing him about $900.
"It's obviously a profit stream," he says.
Every year, Culver City's photo and video enforcement program catches thousands of violators and generates about $2 million in fines. Most of the revenue goes to the private red-light camera vendor and to the state.
And to help solve California's $20 billion dollar crisis, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has suggested retrofitting 500 city and county traffic cameras to generate even more money.
But Los Angeles City Council member Dennis Zine thinks the citations are excessive.
"The punishment must fit the crime," Zine says. "You don't want to be oppressive. And when you get to $500, are you now starting to verge on oppressive government?"
The city of Los Angeles collects $3.8 million a year from traffic tickets, and city officials are talking about doubling the number of red-light cameras to make even more money. But Zine, a former L.A. cop, suggests lowering the fines but keeping most of that money for the cash-strapped city, not the state.
"We could lower those fines; more people would probably pay and not opt for community service," he says. "In other words, we'd collect more fines. It'd be more fair to the individuals. Bottom line is, drive careful. The light's yellow; slow down, prepare to stop and go by the speed limit. If you follow the rules, you're not gonna have a problem."
More Harm Than Good?
But for some motorists, the red-light cameras create anxiety and confusion.
"I'm paranoid," says Peter Davis, "because I don't want to get a ticket."
During his three-mile daily commute to work, Davis has to navigate past three red-light cameras. So he ends up making all these split-second decisions.
"If the light turns yellow, and I'm confident I can get over the crosswalk while it's still yellow, then I'm going to accelerate to get through the traffic light," he says. But Davis also worries about rear-end collisions. "There's always the concern of someone behind me, are they going to ram me from behind," he says.
Several states have banned the cameras already. In Louisiana, state Rep. Jeff Arnold tried to do it, saying the cameras are used to generate dollars, not to improve safety.
But the House Transportation Committee rejected his argument that the cameras increase rear-end collisions because people slam on their brakes rather than risk getting a ticket.
In fact, the cameras do prevent more serious crashes, says Michael Manville, a researcher at UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies.
"It's an effective deterrent," Manville says. "After the lights are put in place, the evidence seems pretty conclusive that you do see a substantial, probably overall 20 to 30 percent, reduction in collisions. That includes the slight uptick in rear ending."
But many drivers are skeptical and question exactly how these cameras are calibrated -- specifically, how long yellow lights last. In Collier County, Fla., a math tutor successfully challenged the credibility of the red-light camera system and found the yellows were too short.
According to California's Department of Transportation, the length of the yellow light correlates to the posted speed limit. For example, in a 35 mph zone, the yellow light should last 3.6 seconds.
Detective Doug Marks and Sgt. Omar Corrales accompanied NPR to put Culver City's cameras to the test with a stopwatch. The result: The left-arrow yellow light at one intersection, with a speed limit of 35 mph, repeatedly timed out at 3.7 seconds.
Culver City was one of the first places to start using the red-light cameras 11 years ago. Marks and Corrales say there used to be one or two fatalities a year, but there hasn't been one since the cameras were installed -- "knock on wood."
Corrales says he doesn't know if that reduction can be attributed directly to the cameras, but he wants to think so. When people tell him they are more careful at those intersections now, Corrales is happy. "That's all we want," he says.
For those drivers still apprehensive about red-light camera tickets, there's now an iPhone app warning where they're located. And here are a few tips for Californians from Orange County attorney Stan "The Radar Man" Alari:
-- Ticketed drivers should opt for traffic school or do community service to reduce or avoid costs.
-- Beware of so-called snitch tickets -- when you're asked to rat out whoever was driving your car. "You're under no obligation whatever to incriminate anybody else," says Alari. "Ignore that letter. Just go to court and say, 'That's not me.' "
-- Because the photo tickets must have a clear picture of the defendant's face, you can drive around with your visor down, Alari says, joking, "or maybe drive around with a mustache or a beard. Or a Frankenstein mask on. Get creative. They're getting creative. Why can't we?"
Of course, when the light turns yellow, you could always just slow down.