A no-no: Using red light cameras to raise money

Sen. Joe Simitian may want to be careful driving his state vehicle with its official “S 11” plate. That is, if legislation he is carrying becomes law.

His bill, SB 29, would bar localities from considering “revenue generation” in deciding whether to install automated traffic enforcement systems — red light cameras, in most cases.

“I don’t think tickets should ever be given to raise revenues,” said Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who represents the 11th Senate District..

Of course, speed traps have been a staple of small town budgets for decades — one town in Florida in the 1950s was famed for a highway where the speed limit dropped suddenly from 55 miles per hour to 17. But, barring such overt profiteering, how does one bar against considering revenue? The bill states that a vendor can’t be paid based on how much revenue a camera generates.

According to a recent Sacramento Bee story, the California Highway Patrol handed out 200,000 more tickets in 2009 than they did in 2007, an 8 percent increase. The Sacramento Superior Court dealt with 16 percent more tickets in 2010 than in 2006; this includes citations from the CHP and County Sheriff. A CHP spokesman in the story denied that they had been intentionally handing out more tickets, and instead attributed the increase to a change in the shift system that put more officers on patrol, as well as more “fix it” tickets given to people driving cars with broken windshields or other problems.

SB 29 also makes several other changes to rules around red light cameras. It demands that intersections with the cameras be marked, and sets more stringent rules around mailing out tickets based on filmed infractions.

The bill represents two legacies of Simitian’s time in office coming together: his interest in traffic safety — he is perhaps best known for the laws baring talking on a handheld cell phone or texting while driving — and his annual “There oughta be a law” contest.

The idea was sent in by a constituent, Vera Gil, who received two tickets from Southern California from a car she had never driven. The car in question, Simitian said, turned out to have been driven by a young man Gil had never met, and the whole thing was a case of mistaken identity based on misplaced letters on a license plate. Gil actually won the contest in 2010. Simitian carried a similar bill last year, SB 1362, but it died in committee.

In any case, the CHP doesn’t seem to view Simitian as a threat to their revenue model. The Senator will be appearing Monday morning at the CHP Academy in Sacramento with CHP commissioner Joe Farrow to kick off April as “National Distracted Driving Awareness.” As reported in an earlier story, Simitian is carrying bills this session to clean up and strengthen his laws on handheld cell phone use by drivers.

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