In San Rafael, it will be traffic-ticket trick or treat.

On Halloween, the 30-day warning period ends and motorists start getting for-real tickets for running red lights documented by cameras at the intersection of Irwin and Third streets.

San Rafael is the first city in Marin County to set up cameras to document drivers lead-footing it through red lights. The city has a contract with a vendor to process video, digital images and mail notices of expensive fines.

Motivated by traffic safety and revenue enhancement, more cities are starting such programs even as problems arise, such as:

  • increasingly organized public opposition to fines that exceed $400;
  • recent court decisions that restrict contract language that might incentivize the writing of more tickets by cities and the handful of vendors that specialize in this business; and
  • issues between cities and vendors in processing images and information in deciding when it is appropriate to mail out a notice of violation.

“The informal feedback is positive,” said Margo Rohrbacher, public information officer for the San Rafael Police Department. “One of the benefits of having these cameras is what they call a halo effect. The signage starts at least a block and a half from the intersection and people start to slow down an intersection or so prior to the intersection.”

“We want to meet all the legal requirements and the public safety requirements,” said Rohrbacher. “We want people to stop for that light.”

Cameras snap four pictures of the potential violations, license plate and the driver’s face (state vehicle code requires the latter in order to issue a traffic ticket), according to a city news release. There is a video of 12 seconds of the vehicle approaching, passing through and leaving the intersection.

A city officer reviews images before a ticket is issued. Violators can review the video on a password-protected Web site or come to the police station to see it.

Redflex Traffic Systems of Arizona charges the city of San Rafael $5,900 a month per approach (there are cameras on two approaches at Irwin and Third) with the potential to expand to 10 approaches. The intersections were identified in studies of traffic patterns and collision data by the vendor, police and the city’s traffic engineer.

The process resulted in enhancing safety at Irwin and Third by extending the yellow light period from 3.0 to 3.5 seconds and adding a one-second interval when it’s red lights all around the intersection. “It provides some slack for drivers,” said Rohrbacher.

Before starting a red-light camera system, cities should study traffic issues, document the need and thoroughly analyze companies making bids, advised Rob Sharpnack, a Costa Mesa Police Department sergeant. The Costa Mesa City Council is contemplating changes as it monitors the travails of its vendor. Earlier this year, Nestor Traffic Systems went into receivership and, in September, its assets were purchased by American Traffic Solutions.

In Costa Mesa, Nestor was the vendor since the city started a red-light camera program in 2003, planning a phase-in installation of cameras at 20 intersections. The vendor’s problems in meeting phase-in targets, as well as billing and record-keeping errors, were cited in Sharpnack’s Aug. 22 review of the program for the council.
The city devotes about 30 hours a week of civilian staff time to the program.

The review (click here to read) compared four intersections in 2001-03 (before camera installation), and 2006-08, drawing parallels to the same periods for four similar intersections that had no cameras.

It found that total collisions in the camera intersections actually increased 13 percent, while they decreased in the four control intersections. But the number of injury collisions decreased 15 percent in the camera intersections (from 55 in 2001-03 to 47 in 2006-08) compared to an increase of 2 percent in the control intersections.

More than 100 cities in California have red-light cameras. The number of cities (and number of intersections) is increasing, said Steve Miller, the president of, a Westlake Village company that offers customers their money back if the firm cannot enable them to get red-light camera tickets dismissed or reduced.

The company is a document-filing service for California trial by written declarations that offers customers a way to contest a ticket without going to court, Miller said. The company provides knowledge of court systems and decisions that have cited red-light camera contract language for indirectly encouraging the writing of more tickets if revenues flag.

The company taps into public outrage expressed in blogs and city council meetings, particularly in Southern California, over issues of entrapment, incentives and expense. The tickets typically exceed $400 — after allowances for the vendors’ cut, and distributions to the city, county and state as regulated by state vehicle code.

In Corona, a political controversy has arisen over the idea of making tickets less expensive by cutting out vendors and having city staff process administrative citations.

A handful of cities have terminated red-light camera programs in recent years, citing court decisions (Fullerton), the need (Roseville) and allegations of ticket quotas (Fairfield), according to media reports.

Napa started a red-light camera program in the spring after thoroughly studying programs in the Sacramento area and the South Bay, said police Cmdr. Andy Lewis.

Napa staff started with two intersections. In early October, police went back to the city council asking for authorization to install cameras on three more intersections and hire a part-time person to help with processing. The council approved the request by a 4-1 vote, said Lewis. 

The public safety improvement is promising, Lewis said, based on preliminary data. From April 30 to Sept. 16, citywide there were nine collisions and nine injuries attributed to red-light running vehicles. For the same period last year (before cameras), the citywide numbers were 19 such accidents with 23 injuries.

“It’s going well,” Lewis said. “Everyone likes it — until they get caught.”

Lance Howland can be reached at