MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC MOVING)
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: In California, getting photo tagged for running a red light can be expensive - and the cameras are unforgiving.
ROBERT ZIRGULIS: You know, these are machines. They don't care. You know, you go one foot over the line, bam, $500.
DEL BARCO: Substitute teacher Robert Zirgulis takes the streets to protest the 18 red light cameras in Culver City, population 40,000, just west of L.A.
ZIRGULIS: You see? Did you see the light just went off? Somebody just got a red light ticket. Those are designed to get as many tickets as possible. They're not designed to make it safe to drive.
DEL BARCO: Zargulis's hostility toward red light cameras drove his bid for a spot on the local council in Culver City. He lost the election but won support from drivers like Michael Fucci.
MICHAEL FUCCI: I just paid $540 for a ticket last month for a red light.
ZIRGULIS: Isn't that disgusting? It's totally unfair, isn't it?
FUCCI: It's completely preposterous.
DEL BARCO: Cities insist it's all about safety, but critics say the huge fines and the uncertainty over what to do when a traffic light turns yellow causes some motorists to freak out.
PETER DAVIS: I'm paranoid, yeah.
DEL BARCO: Peter Davis says he has to make split-second decisions during his daily three-mile commute to work when he encounters three red light cameras.
DAVIS: If the light turns yellow and I'm confident I can get over the crosswalk while it's still yellow then I'm going to accelerate to get through the traffic light. But if you don't know how long you have until it turns red and you're not sure you can get through, so you slam on the brakes 'cause you don't want to go through a possible red light and then there's the always the concern of someone behind me. Are they going to ram into me from behind?
DEL BARCO: In fact, red light cameras do reduce accidents, says Michael Manville, a researcher at UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies.
MICHAEL MANVILLE: The evidence seems pretty conclusive that you do see a substantial - probably overall 20 to 30 percent reduction in collisions. That includes the slight uptick in rear-ending.
DEL BARCO: Even in a small town that cameras can be a real cash machine - Culver City reportedly grosses around $2 million a year, which is one reason Los Angeles, a big city with huge budget problems, has considered installing dozens of new red light cameras.
MANVILLE: Bottom line is: drive careful. The light's yellow, slow down, prepare to stop and go by the speed limit. If you follow the rules, you're not going to have a problem.
DEL BARCO: L.A. City Councilman Dennis Zine is an ex-cop with no sympathy for dangerous drivers, but he does wonder if the fines from red light cameras have gotten too steep.
DENNIS ZINE: I think it's excessive. The punishment must fit the crime. You don't want to be oppressive, and when you get to the point of $500, now are we starting to verge on oppressive government?
DEL BARCO: What's the speed limit here?
DOUG MARKS: Thirty-five miles per hour.
DEL BARCO: So, how long should they be...
OMAR CORRALES: The yellow light will be 3.6 seconds.
DEL BARCO: Just turned yellow. Red. How long was that?
CORRALES: I got 3.7.
DEL BARCO: That's legal with a tenth of a second to spare. Red light tickets may be big business, but so is the practice of trying to beat them. Here are a few tips from attorney Stan Alare(ph).
STAN ALARE: Stan the radar man.
DEL BARCO: He advises ticketed drivers to go to traffic school or do community service to reduce or avoid costs. And Alare says always beware of so-called snitch tickets that ask you to rat out another person driving your car.
ALARE: And you are under no obligation whatever to incriminate anybody else. Ignore that letter. Just go to court and say, that's not me.
DEL BARCO: That's because in California, the cameras must get a clear shot of the driver's face.
ALARE: The one thing you can do, you can drive around with your visor down or maybe drive around with a mustache or a beard, you know. Just slap it on and take off. Or with a Frankenstein mask on, I don't know. Get creative, you know? They're getting creative, why can't we, right?
DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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