Encinitas red-light camera contract up for renewal

Red light cameras at the corner of Encinitas Blvd and El Camino Real in Encinitas.
(Jamie Scott Lytle)

Council to debate continuing enforcement program at Encinitas Boulevard, Olivenhain Roads


Encinitas is one of the few places left in San Diego County that’s still using cameras to catch red-light runners, and the City Council will debate Wednesday night, Dec. 11, whether to pull the plug.

There are public safety benefits to keeping the program, but there also are some new concerns regarding ticket revenue, city traffic engineer Abraham Bandegan told the city’s Traffic and Public Safety Commission Monday, Dec. 9, as he discussed the city’s contract with Redflex, the camera company provider.

On the plus side, he said, the program does appear to act as a deterrent to red-light runners, noting that nearly everyone who has gotten a ticket over the years is a first-time violator.

However, ticket revenue has been falling slightly of late, even though the numbers of people getting cited hasn’t dropped, Bandegan said. The reason for the revenue drop appears to be that when violators now challenge their tickets in court, they’re more likely to get their fees reduced, perhaps because judges know that so many cities now have ended their camera programs, he added.

Encinitas has only had the red-light cameras at two El Camino Real intersections -- the one at Encinitas Boulevard and the other at Olivenhain Road and Leucadia Boulevard. The Encinitas Boulevard cameras were installed in 2005, while the other intersection got its devices a year earlier.

Both camera locations were recommended by Sheriff’s deputies, who said red-light running at those two intersections was rampant and using the cameras as an enforcement tool was far safer than sending deputies on motorcycles chasing after violators through the busy, multi-lane intersections.

Red-light cameras have been in use in the United States since the 1990s, but in the last decade cities have been reconsidering their deployment as opposition to the cameras has grown. Opponents say the cost of the tickets -- nearly $500 in San Diego County -- is outrageous, and they argue that the presence of the cameras may actually cause some traffic accidents because drivers may suddenly slam on the breaks when the traffic light turns yellow.

Del Mar and Solana Beach have kept their cameras, but Escondido, Oceanside, Poway, San Diego and Vista have terminated their camera programs.

Last August, the Encinitas City Council agreed to continue contracting with Redflex, but went with an 18-month contract rather than the 5-year one that city staff had proposed. At the time, Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who suggested the shorter contract period, said her support for the program was waning and Encinitas eventually ought to end its camera program.

On Monday, a majority of the traffic commission members said they still strongly supported the camera program, but one commissioner -- Charlie Lisherness -- said he had supported it in the past, but no longer would do so. He said new traffic accident information that compared these two intersections to two other intersections without cameras, didn’t make a compelling argument for keeping the cameras.

Commissioners who described themselves as strong supporters of the cameras included Chairman Peter Kohl and Commissioner Michael von Neumann, who both said they wished the city would expand the program.

“I’d recommend that we keep them and I’d actually like to see more of them around,” von Neuman said.

Kohl said that if the city ended the program, drivers would be more likely to “get away with” running red lights.

Bandegan told the commissioners that the general public believes many things about the camera program that are false. First, he said, it isn’t true that the camera company gets more revenue if more people get tickets. The company gets a flat per month payment of $10,200 regardless of how many tickets are issued. Also, the company has no say in who gets ticketed. Sheriff’s department employees review the camera footage each month and make the ticketing decisions, not the camera company, he said.

And, he said, the number of people who get tickets is far lower than most people think; only .05 percent of the roughly one million drivers through the intersections are tagged by the cameras as possible red-light violators and only a third of them actually get tickets. People are eliminated if it appears that they were in the intersection for only a fraction of a second after the light turned red, if their vehicle stopped soon after crossing the stop bar of the intersection or if the driver’s face was not clearly visible in the photograph.

Encinitas isn’t making millions off the cameras, either, Bandegan stressed. The program currently costs the city $208,824 a year, and this year Encinitas is making enough to cover its costs, but just barely, he said.

-- Barbara Henry is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune