After 14 years of using cameras to enforce red light violations at major intersections, San Mateo officials will bring the program to a stop after a city analysis showed the program’s safety benefits may be overshadowed by the efforts required to administer it.
Spurred by a timing issue logged at a red-light camera monitoring drivers traveling south on Saratoga Drive toward East Hillsdale Boulevard in May, officials suspended all automated photo enforcement in the city and began a comprehensive review of the program’s effectiveness, according to a press release.
An investigation determined the yellow light timing for the camera in question was inadvertently set during a construction project to 3.4 seconds, just short of the state-mandated minimum of 3.6 seconds. City officials in response decided to dismiss or refund all of the 985 citations issued at that approach between Dec. 4 and May 20, when the yellow-light timing was out of compliance, according to a staff report.
The discrepancy also stirred concerns within the city’s Police and Public Works departments about the accuracy of the systems at other intersections and the challenges of operating the sophisticated technology. A study of the number of citations issued at intersections with the technology and citywide red-light collision rates contributed to officials’ decision to end automated photo enforcement in the city out of concern about its flagging effectiveness and time-consuming nature, according to the report.
City Manager Drew Corbett said in the release officials are doing everything possible to remedy the situation for those affected by the most recent yellow light error and emphasized officials’ top priority in deciding to end the program is public safety.
“These cameras are simply not having the same effect on improving drivers’ behaviors as they once were,” said Corbett. “We believe focusing our efforts on uniformed patrols and education will have a greater benefit to our community.”
According to the report, the city began its red-light photo enforcement at four approaches to major intersections in 2005 in an effort to reduce the number of red-light collisions and violations and bring drivers’ attention to the dangers of unsafe driving.
Cameras monitoring drivers traveling east on East Hillsdale Boulevard toward Saratoga Drive and south on Saratoga Drive toward East Hillsdale Boulevard were installed in May of 2005, while equipment monitoring those driving east and west on East Hillsdale Boulevard toward South Norfolk Street were installed in September of 2005. Another camera capturing footage of drivers traveling east on East Fourth Avenue toward South Humboldt Street was installed in December of 2006, according to the report.
The number of events captured by the system and believed to be a violation in a year steadily dropped from the 15,898 logged in 2006 to 10,914 recorded in 2009. For the next five years, the number hovered between the 11,692 logged in 2011 to the 12,532 recorded in 2012 until it rose to 14,209 in 2015. The number continued to climb and reached 18,133 in 2018. An analysis of the city’s collision data illustrates that neither the total number of citywide collisions nor the number of collisions occurring in the three photo-enforced intersections have changed significantly over time, according to the report.
Because automatic photo enforcement programs are regulated by law, city officials are alleging the process of issuing citations has become increasingly demanding of staff time and resources. To meet standards set by the California Vehicle Code, enforcement staff are required to positively identify offenders, process violations and deliver notifications by mail of the incident within 15 calendar days of a violation. Law enforcement staff were able to issue citations with regard to 23% of the incidents captured in the system in 2018, according to the report.
In October of 2015, the city tossed out some 900 tickets after it was discovered the city failed to increase the yellow light times per new regulations in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Though the change went into effect in August 2015, the city did not meet the minimum yellow light interval time rules for two and a half months past the deadline, according to the report.
Because San Mateo is contracted by Millbrae to provide its automatic photo enforcement, staff is planning to continue providing those services for another three months through Oct. 19 and support Millbrae in transferring the program to another law enforcement agency. Millbrae expressed interest in continuing its program, according to the report.
Officials estimate it will take some 90 days to wind down the automated enforcement program with Redflex, the company the city has contracted with to operate the system. The budgeted net revenue of the automated enforcement program in 2019-20 is $172,650, and expenses associated with ending the program are included in the Police Department’s budget. A traffic enforcement coordinator position dedicated for the program will be refocused on other parking enforcement efforts, according to the report.
In other business, the San Mateo City Council will consider adopting a resolution to keep the voter-approved provisions of Measure P in place until the city’s effort to update its General Plan is complete. First approved by voters in 1991 as Measure H, 2004’s Measure P established 55-foot height limits in most parts of the city, restricted how densely housing and commercial developers can build and also required residential developments to provide at least 10 percent of below-market-rate units on site. Set to sunset in 2020, the future of Measure P has been debated in the last year while the city’s long-range planning effort — which officials initiated in 2017 and is expected to include discussions on housing, land use policy, circulation, open space, noise, safety and conservation — is now estimated to extend into 2023.
The resolution is aimed at ensuring all new developments will continue to be subject to the existing height and density limits set forth by Measure P while the community completes the city’s General Plan update.
The council meets 7 p.m. July 15 at City Hall, 330 W. 20th Ave.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106