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Saturday, Dec 28 2013 09:00 PM

How your red light ticket was created

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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. This is a file photo.

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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

The Bakersfield Police Department's simplified explanation of the city's red light camera program is that Redflex Traffic Systems operates cameras at 12 approaches through eight intersections, but the reality has a lot of moving parts.

First, a definition: an approach is the direction you take through an intersection, whether you're driving east on Stockdale Highway and going straight across California Avenue, or turning north on Oswell Avenue from westbound Bernard Street.

Drivers passing through eight intersections in the city can expect to be photographed digitally if they run red lights while making a certain approach -- i.e., traveling in one direction.

But at four of those eight intersections, Redflex also photographs drivers passing through in a second direction.

In practice, Bakersfield police say that these four intersections each have two cameras, and the other eight intersections each have one camera, but again it's complicated because your red light ticket is based on four photos.

This means that while Bakersfield police or Redflex may say they have one or two cameras at an intersection, they always have more than that -- sometimes as many as four cameras per approach. The numbers vary, because at some intersections, one camera may photograph more than one approach.

There's also two sensors buried beneath the asphalt of each approach, one on each side of the crosswalk, which run the cameras.

The sensors are triggered by heavy objects, and time how fast a vehicle moves between them.

Drive through a crosswalk when the light is red and you trip the first sensor. If you pass the second sensor quickly enough when the light is red, it pegs you for a scofflaw who won't have time to stop, and sets off the cameras.

The cameras photograph your rear license plate, the side of your vehicle at two points as you drive through the red light, and record 12 seconds of video of your vehicle. The cameras also photograph the front of your vehicle, so police can get a good look at you.

All this data -- typically around 40 tickets on a weekday, fewer on weekends -- is automatically shipped off to Redflex's American headquarters in Arizona.

Redflex screens it, and so do Bakersfield police, getting rid of tickets for myriad reasons including not being able to positively identify the driver, or clearly see the rear license plate. Other times, it's obvious that, while you may be pushing your luck, you're not breaking the law.

"If any part of the vehicle crosses that outer limit line before the light turns red, that's not a violation," said Bakersfield police Officer Keith Schlecht, using police terminology for "making it through the crosswalk before the light turns red."

Once both entities have gotten a good look at you and decided that you are breaking the law and can successfully be prosecuted, your ticket is mailed directly from the Grand Canyon State.

When Schlecht spent part of a recent shift examining tickets, he briefly considered letting a pickup truck driver with a Washington state driver's license and Idaho plates off the hook -- out-of-state licenses are not instantly accessible by California cops -- but approved the ticket, saying the man's license information could be verified. It would just take a little longer.

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