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Saturday, Dec 28 2013 08:00 PM

Red-light cameras catching fewer drivers, police issuing more tickets

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Red light cameras near the intersection of California Avenue and Oak Street monitor traffic and are supposed to be set off when a driver runs a red light.

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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

Nearly 12 years after the city first hired Redflex Traffic Systems to install and operate red light cameras in Bakersfield, statistics analyzed by The Californian show that while fewer red-light runners are being photographed, a larger percentage of those caught are being issued tickets.

According to city data for the years 2006 through 2012 -- the only complete calendar year figures available -- Redflex cameras took nearly 20 percent fewer photos in 2012 than in 2006.

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REACTIONS TO REDFLEX SCANDAL

The idea of getting caught on camera or video running a red light isn't universally popular but the city's red light camera program is considered a success. So when Redflex Camera Systems cleaned house following a bribery scandal in Chicago, Bakersfield officials barely blinked.

City Manager Alan Tandy has said he was unaware of Redflex's troubles, but has had no problems with the company's performance or ethics in its dealings with Bakersfield.

But two other agencies -- a town in Arizona and a county in Florida -- moved to distance themselves this year from the company which photographs violators in cities nationwide.

In Prescott Valley, Arizona, a town of nearly 39,000 85 miles north of Phoenix, officials approved a contract with Redflex in 2005.

But when it ended Oct. 3, they didn't renew it.

Prescott Valley Town Manager Larry Tarkowski said residents balked at being watched by an eye in the sky and successfully pressured the town council to make the cameras go away.

They "resented the use of that technology and they made their wishes abundantly clear to the council and the council took it to heart and did not renew the contract," Tarkowski said. "They wanted to see what traffic behavior was going to be without the cameras."

Prescott Valley is piloting a program to examine how drivers perform without red light cameras, Tarkowski said, noting that officials hope accidents do not increase.

In Orange County, Fla., an expanse of more than 1,000 square miles that's centered around Orlando, Redflex was leading in negotiations to land a contract to install up to 80 red light cameras, and its CEO visited the area in April to woo county commissioners.

It didn't work. County commissioners rejected Redflex, and went with their second choice instead.

"I just felt that it was inappropriate to reward their bad behavior with a substantial contract. Was Chicago just the first domino and this whole thing was coming apart?" said Orange County Commissioner Fred Brummer. "I felt, these guys hang around for three years, clean up their act, then I would give them another consideration."

-- Staff writer Theo Douglas

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Using that information, however, the Bakersfield Police Department was able to issue 4 percent more tickets in 2012 than it did in 2006.

This occurred despite both agencies' routine elimination of tickets that could not successfully be prosecuted for reasons including poor photographs, cars with paper license plates, and drivers whose images could not be seen or did not match those of the registered owners.

Police Chief Greg Williamson credited the rise in tickets his department mailed out in 2012 compared to 2006 to diligence on the part of officers in reviewing potential traffic cases from Redflex.

"That's because we're diligent with the information that Redflex sends us," Williamson said, explaining that while BPD does not employ a full-time officer to review potential red-light camera cases, it does regularly assign personnel on an as-needed basis to examine evidence.

A comparison by The Californian of drivers photographed to tickets issued so far this year with the identical period in 2012 -- examining January through October in both years -- revealed a slightly different situation, however.

This comparison shows that thus far in 2013, the Arizona-based Redflex has photographed 10,792 drivers, nearly 7 percent more than it did from January through October 2012, and police have authorized the mailing of 6,850 citations, nearly 6 percent more tickets than they did during the same period last year.

BETTER DRIVERS, TICKET SCREENING

Bakersfield police Sgt. Joe Grubbs declined to speculate on what could be responsible for the rise in photographing and ticketing this year versus last.

Grubbs attributed the overall decline in motorists photographed to an improvement in drivers' habits, saying motorists now realize that cameras are trained on them at eight intersections in city limits.

"They get trained, if you will, that 'This is a red light approach here and I've got to obey the light,'" Grubbs said, adding that it "doesn't work 100 percent of the time, because we're still sending out a lot of tickets, but I think people get used to it."

A QUESTION OF SAFETY, NOT PROFIT

Terms of the current five-year contract with Redflex, which began in February 2008 and will automatically begin its second of two two-year extensions on Feb. 1, are designed to improve traffic safety, not earn a profit.

Bakersfield pays Redflex $37,600 per month from the $500,100 in the police department's Traffic Safety Fund. Part of the city's General Fund budget, this money also covers utilities costs for the city's 12 red light cameras.

(See related story for a more detailed explanation of how many red light cameras are actually on the street.)

That's $1,000 per month for each of the four cameras that photograph the fewest violators, and $4,200 per month for each of the other eight cameras.

However, a so-called "cost neutrality" clause specifies that the city will never have to pay Redflex more than it takes in in payment for tickets.

Grubbs said that once the city's five-year contract and two one-year extensions are up on Jan. 31, 2015, the city would have one year to pay any remaining money owed the company -- but if it isn't able to pay Redflex at the end of that year, the remaining balance would be forgiven.

City Manager Alan Tandy said that the city has earned $376,215 in revenue from 35,836 red light camera tickets issued since Jan. 1, 2008 -- however he and police department officials caution that because neither violators nor court officials rush to get tickets paid as soon as they're issued, a better way to think of it is as a $10.49 profit per ticket over the contract's duration.

Grubbs said the city doesn't earn enough every month from paid tickets to cover the cost of the Redflex contract.

A city survey found that 61 percent of violators actually paid their tickets during the period of February 2008 through May 2013, meaning the city earned roughly $32,165.91 in 2012, the most recent complete year for which figures were available.

ROUGH YEAR FOR REDFLEX

Bakersfield leaders say Redflex and its cameras are doing a good job, but the company came under fire late last year in Chicago -- home to its largest of about 250 U.S. contracts -- for allegedly bribing a city traffic official. Redflex lost the contract, estimated to have brought it more than $100 million in revenue.

Redflex, which is headquartered in Australia, spent "a little more than $4 million" investigating itself, its Global CEO Robert DeVincenzi told the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors on Dec. 10, and fired its executive vice president of business development and accepted the resignations of its CEO, general counsel and CFO.

According to some reports, the company may have lost as much as $20 million from canceled contracts after what happened in Chicago. Earlier this year in Orange County, Fla., commissioners voted to not consider a bid from Redflex because of its bribery scandal.

REDFLEX'S RESPONSE

In response to what happened in Chicago, Redflex set up a compliance office, a training and compliance program, and a whistleblower mechanism to ensure such behavior doesn't happen again.

"As a corporation, we are taking responsibility for our actions," DeVincenzi told the Sacramento supervisors. "The Redflex organization today is a different organization with a different culture."

With Redflex's contract to provide 40 traffic cameras in Sacramento County hanging in the balance, Sacramento County supervisors considered a protest from No. 2 bidder American Traffic Systems and discussed the issue for more than an hour before voting unanimously to continue their nearly $1.7 million contract with the company.

Sacramento County Supervisor Jimmie Yee said Redflex's staff shake-up convinced supervisors the company had addressed its problems.

"They made sure whoever did this was no longer with the company," Yee said in an interview. "That tells me that they were serious about cleaning house."

Redflex CEO James Saunders said the company is indeed focused on doing what's right.

"We are committed to the public interest, both in providing industry-leading products and services and by operating in a transparent manner," Saunders said in an email interview. "Leading the industry means more than just great products and great people -- it also means an unwavering commitment to doing the right thing."

NO PROBLEMS IN BAKERSFIELD

Bakersfield City Manager Alan Tandy said he had been unaware of the revelations about Redflex, but that the city has had no issues with the company's performance or ethics and believes it has made a positive difference.

"I don't have up-to-the-minute data, but what we pulled in the past indicated it reduced serious accidents at the locations where they're placed," Tandy said. "One hopes there is a lesson that extends beyond the locations where they are placed."

The Bakersfield Police Department was unable to provide current accident statistics for the eight intersections with red light cameras. But while city officials approve, not all elected officials are sold on photographing violators.

"I will look very hard at those numbers, because I have a problem with kind of the 'Big Brother' concept that you run a red light and they take a picture," said Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell, whose district includes three of the intersections. "It's almost like an entrapment situation. I've never been a big fan of doing the cameras."

Ward 4 Councilman Bob Smith, an avid bicyclist, likes the cameras, although he represents an area that doesn't have any.

"I haven't looked at it in a while, but when I did research it, it generally does what it's supposed to do: make people more conscious and run red lights less. Therefore, we have safer streets and fewer accident deaths," said Smith, who represents the northwest. "Anything we can do to make the streets safer, I'm all about."

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