Red light, greenbacks

Critics say municipalities profit from rolling stops on the backs of the poor, but attempted legislative fixes have died

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the December 15, 2016, issue.

Rolling into a right turn at a red light is a move named for our state. But if a California-stopping driver is caught on camera, he or she can get slapped with a ticket that could cost $541, even though the violation only causes a tiny percentage of accidents.

Yet these rolling turn violations made up the vast majority of red light citations handed down by two cities in Sacramento County last year, boosting local revenues but doing little to make the public safer, critics argue.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a red light camera at an intersection to catch the person driving straight through, who creates a real hazardous situation,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill. “But they don’t have to install that second camera aiming at that right turn lane. It’s a cash cow for them. And they know it. And they think we’re stupid. And it’s sad.”

Hill could be referring to a couple of local municipalities.

Illegally turning right on red accounted for 94 percent of red light violations ticketed in Elk Grove last year, and 88 percent of those cited in Rancho Cordova, according to the latest annual report from Redflex, the company contracted to build and install traffic-light cameras.

Comparatively, the city of Sacramento issued 6,931 citations for turning right on red in 2015, but that represented only 39 percent of all red light violations.

In the 2015-16 fiscal year, Elk Grove made $657,105 off red light cameras alone. The city pays $5,870 every two months to Redflex to maintain the cameras and for other expenses. Between August 2012 and November 2016, Elk Grove paid the camera company $1,173,654.

Rancho Cordova doesn’t differentiate between officer-written and camera-triggered red light violations. But during the 2015-16 fiscal year, the city cleared $742,851 from red-light infractions, compared to just $73,254 in 2012-13. Spokeswoman Maria Kniestedt confirmed the more than 101 percent spike was due to the four cameras installed over that period.

Hill, a San Mateo Democrat, says cities like this are padding their general funds on the backs of the poor.

“Five-hundred-fifty dollars can be a third of a person’s take-home pay,” he said. “People who can least afford it are paying it. And this is not increasing safety at all.”

In February, the senator proposed a bill to cut the base fine from $100 to $35 for the turning infraction. Lowering the base rate would also cut by about half the amount in other fees and penalties that get tacked onto citations for court-processing, traffic school and the like, which is how a $100 infraction can balloon to more than $500.

On June 27, Hill’s bill received unanimous approval in the Senate. It was supported by the National Motorists Association, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen and the American Civil Liberties Union of California. The bill promised to make the punishment more fitting of the crime, as the rolling-on-red maneuver only accounts for 0.5 percent of all automotive accidents, with outcomes that generally were not severe, according to the Center for Transportation Safety.

But the bill never made it out of the Assembly appropriations committee after it was determined that it would cause a significant loss in revenue at the state and local levels. Hill still has four years left in his term and says he will continue fighting for the bill.

“Unfortunately, government does everything it can to get as much money as possible,” Hill said. “And what I’ve come to learn is that fairness isn’t necessarily part of the equation.”

Traffic-light cameras became vogue back in the late 1990s. A state bill, passed in 1997, raised the fines for all red light violations, hoping to prevent often deadly t-bone collisions. Rolling right turns were inadvertently included in the law, according to Hill, who has proposed two similar bills in the past. The last one was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Hill doesn’t propose to make a rolling right turn legal, only to lower the penalty to a similar infraction. The $100 base fine in place now usually applies to more dangerous maneuvers like speeding in excess of 25 mph on the freeway and failing to yield to an emergency vehicle. Meanwhile, stopping at a red light, then making an “unsafe” right turn that endangers another vehicle or a pedestrian, only has a $35 base fee.

In Elk Grove, stop-light cameras are triggered if a car is moving at least 14 mph when it crosses the “line of no return”—8-to-11 feet away from the stop line—which assistant city clerk Brenda Haggard said via email is “based on numerous studies and cases that show it would be impossible for a vehicle traveling at this speed to stop before entering the intersection/crosswalk.”

In Rancho Cordova, the camera flashes if a car approaches the intersection limit line at or exceeding 12 mph and the light has been red for 0.1 seconds.

“There’s no study that’s necessary to determine what these parameters are,” said Kniestedt, who added that a car rolling through a red light without stopping is breaking the law. She also noted that the 12 mph threshold is 3 mph higher than the minimum required.

Another report provided by Redflex showed that tourists were the ones most likely to pay. From November 2013 to October 2015, the Redflex report indicated, 72 percent of Rancho Cordova’s red light citations went to visitors. In Elk Grove, 69 percent of the tickets went to visitors.

“If you get a ticket, you think, ’Maybe Rancho Cordova isn’t a great place to go shopping,’” said Jim Lissner, who runs, an exhaustively detailed website devoted to tracking red light cameras.

Elsewhere on the site, Lissner lists 36 Californian cities that once had red light cameras, but have since removed them, including Davis. The city removed its cameras last year due to high operational costs, administrative backlog and the belief that they were too “sterile” a form of enforcement.