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Lights, Camera, Tickets

By Teresa Rochester

In the future, drivers who speed through red lights in Santa Monica may find themselves immortalized on film and fined $271 for breaking the law, as the police department moves to implement a red light camera pilot program in 2002.

While police officials have just begun to map out how the program will work in a City that has seen traffic volume increase by two percent a year since 1987,

they received an earful of concerns from two dozen residents Saturday at a community forum on the issue.

"We find it to be fundamentally unfair and unconstitutional," attorney Mike Klein, who sits on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union, said of the cameras. "It's constitutionally suspect as a violation of privacy."

Police don't agree. They also point out that legal challenges to the cameras have lost.

"You do not have a right to privacy on a public road. Driving is a privilege not a right," SMPD Capt. Jacqueline Seabrooks responded. "There is a way to defend your right to privacy -- don't drive through red lights. This really is an optional program."

Police said the cameras -- which will be mounted at strategic intersections and will snap pictures of cars running red lights -- are a valuable tool to crack down on violators.

Nationwide 260,000 collisions a year are caused when drivers run red lights, and such infractions are responsible for 750 deaths. In Santa Monica, red light violations accounted for nine percent of all traffic violations written in 1997 and eight percent of those written in 1998, according to a city staff report.

Seabrooks told the audience assembled at the Ken Edwards Center that red light collisions are particularly dangerous because people often accelerate as the plow through the light. From a police officer's perspective, chasing a violator through a light also raises the chance that the officer could be hit by oncoming traffic.

In February the City Council approved in concept a plan to install the automated red light cameras at three intersections. While the intersections have not yet been selected, police Saturday said that they had identified two possible intersections -- at Lincoln and Pico boulevards and Lincoln and Olympic boulevards.

Under the program - which would be evaluated every six months - one officer would be assigned to review the photos, make court appearances and serve as a liaison to the firm providing the cameras.

On Saturday, that officer, Natalie Dewberry, said she was in the process of visiting various cities that have automated red light cameras in place. Neighboring Culver City and Beverly Hills both have red light cameras, as does San Francisco, El Cajon, Irvine, Los Angeles, Oxnard, West Hollywood and Santa Rosa. Germany, Sweden, Brazil and Kuwait also use the automated cameras.

In the United States the number of red light violations decreased between 40 percent and 60 percent in areas where the cameras are used, according to traffic records. The cameras resulted in an increase in the number of tickets issued.

Currently there are three types of cameras on the market. One uses film like a traditional camera, while the others use digital still photography and video. City officials still are analyzing which best fits Santa Monica's needs.

Residents at Saturday's forum wondered how fail safe the cameras were and what would happen if they accidentally found themselves in an intersection after a light turned red.

Dewberry said that program has "built-in discretion." She would review each photo before issuing a ticket. She added that the camera would only be triggered if a car moved past a cut off point once a light had turned red. The photo would capture the front license plate, the driver and the back license plate.

Drivers caught on the camera who did indeed "run the red" would be issued a ticket, along with a $271 fine. The money generated by fines would be used to recover the cost of the program, and the City would receive 89 percent of the fines from all traffic violations and a percentage of the fines paid by those who attend traffic school, according to a City staff report.

The police department will continue to accept comments from the public on the automated red light enforcement program. A brochure on the program is also available.

Comments and concerns can be directed to Officer Natalie Dewberry at (310) 458-8993, extension 2, or by mail at Santa Monica Police Department, Red light Camera Enforcement Program, 1685 Main St. Santa Monica, CA 90401.

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