Caught in the Red Lightmare

Have you ever gotten a ticket because a webcam snapped you going through a red light? Do you know anyone who experienced this? There's a good chance you do, because approximately 250,000 people got red-light tickets in California alone each year, according to Senator Joe Simitian, a Democrat from Palo Alto, who introduced a red-light bill (SB1303) which was passed in September 2012. The bill prohibits cities or counties from using the cameras purely to raise cash, makes it easier to get wrongfully issued tickets dismissed, such as if you weren't driving your car, and specifies that the computer printouts, photos, and videos taken by cameras to show you broke the law will no longer be considered hearsay.

I began thinking about red-light tickets after I got my own at what turned out to be the hottest red-light ticket spot in the 14 Bay Area cities using these cameras -- the interserction at 27th and Northgate Avenue just off the Interstate 980 freeway in Oakland. According to a SF Chronicle article by Kevin Fagin on how much money these tickets bring in, the spot where I was caught on video cam generated 9,273 tickets in 2010, to the tune of a $4.2 million gross based on the $450 red-light ticket fine at the time. The ticket was $480 when I went through the light in April, and more recently it is up to $490.

Now that's a lot of money, especially when you consider that you can get this ticket for simply making a right turn by not completely stopping, which can be easy to do, when you are looking around to see that it is safe to make a right turn. What's worse is that this fee in California is the highest in the nation, over twice what other states get for the same offense, and commonly these tickets are only $100.

So after discovering the ticket in the mail several weeks later, naturally I did what I could to first delay it from ending up on my driving record which would increase my insurance rates if I lost. So I managed to postpone the court date reckoning for nine months from April 2012 to January 2013. Meanwhile, the thought of an unseen camera in the sky taking my photo at the intersection seemed so creepy to me that it inspired a music video: Traffic Court Star. The video was filmed in August 2012 and features four actor drivers protesting getting a ticket from a red light camera. As the first verse and chorus go, cutting between the actors and images of cameras on high:

It's a great deay for a drive, or so I thought.
Then I rolled through a red light, and I got caught.
But it wasn't a cop who turned me in.
Just a camera filming my traffic sin....
So now, look out...
We have eyes in the sky
You're in a scene from I spy.
Well, I think it's really creepy to be watched from afar.
I don't want to be a traffic court star.
No, not a traffic court star

Then finally I had my day in court, though I could have chosen any of the options for losing the case from the day I got a notice of the ticket in the mail. Just so I clearly knew the evidence against me, the "Notice of Traffic Violation" had pictures of me at the wheel, my license number, my car going through the red light, and a link to a 12-second online video of the offense. I could either pay the $480, go to traffic school for about eight hours and an additional $59 resulting in no points on my driving record, or pay off the fine through community service at the rate of $10 an hour -- or 48 hours of work -- if I couldn't afford to pay. At least court offered the chance of getting the whole thing dismissed.

But as I soon discovered, unless you are curious to see what the court experience is like, you might as well just pay up, since you are likely to lose based on the video evidence against you, regardless of your explanation or excuse, unless you can show you weren't driving the car. While there might be some ways to get off on legal technicalities, such as if you opt for a trial by written declaration and point out that there was no sign on the street warning drivers of the red light camera and an insufficient yellow light interval based on the posted speed limit, according to California Traffic Tickets, the average driver doesn't know this. Also, drivers commonly don't know about the beat your traffic ticket companies that have sprung up to help drivers get a ticket dismissed for a small fee (reduced or free if you are still stuck with your ticket.

But if you end up in court, the judge, such as the one I had, might not care for such legal nitpicking and just look at the video to determine if you went through the red light without stopping. So mostly, I found, pretty much everyone loses at a trial; so it might be worth it to simply pay or choose to go to traffic school or put in your time on community service.