A warning sign for a red light camera system. (Photp credit: unknown)

Garden Grove’s unpopular red light cameras are here to stay — at least for now — after the City Council voted Tuesday night to keep the photo enforcement program.

With the 3-2 vote, Garden Grove joins Los Alamitos in bucking a trend among cities across the county to nix their contracts with the national vendor Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. Santa Ana and Huntington Beach, among others, have ended their programs in recent years.

While police departments and some advocates insist the cameras improve traffic safety, many in the public see them as Orwellian programs that violate due process rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and constitute an invasion of privacy.

Tuesday’s meeting marked the second time councilman Phat Bui and mayor Bao Nguyen have tried and failed to convince their colleagues to cancel the Redflex contract. The other three council members, Kris Beard, Chris Phan and Steve Jones, have stood by the Police Department’s stance that the technology reduces collisions and saves time for officers.

The issue returned to the council agenda Tuesday because Bui and Nguyen had insisted city staff re-crunch their data, to reconcile discrepancies between their analysis and a competing report offered by the Los Angeles-based group Safer Streets LA.

The cameras have reduced overall broadside or ‘T-bone’ collisions — which are most likely to cause death or injury — by 42 percent, while rear-end collisions have increased by 12 percent, according to the Police Department and city traffic engineers.

Staff says the increase in rear-end collisions — an outcome consistent with a federal study on the effect of red light cameras — is a positive trade-off because it reduces the severity of accidents in intersections.

They also touted the cameras for their additional side benefits, such as providing a photo and video evidence for traffic and DUI cases, and freeing officers to do other work.

Revenue from traffic fines also funds two full-time Police Department positions.

Jay Beeber, executive director of Safer Streets LA who sent the city council his own analysis of the city’s collision data at red light intersections, argues that the cameras don’t actually reduce collisions, which he says are caused by distracted or impaired drivers, not drivers trying to make a yellow light.

Cameras also tend to focus on drivers making right turns at red lights, turns that don’t cause many accidents, he argued.

“The city has reduced violations since January 90 percent, only by adjusting yellow light time by half a second. What that tells you is that the city can achieve as much or a greater benefit by just doing the engineering properly,” Beeber said.

James Dean, a Garden Grove resident who works for a firm that represents individuals challenging their traffic tickets in court, has asked the city council several times to remove the cameras, arguing that the fines are too high for most residents and don’t improve safety at intersections.

A red light violation, whether caught by a camera or a police officer at the scene, comes with a $490 fine, a sum set by the state legislature.

“They only have 30 days to make the payment, and if they can’t make the payment, they get another $325 penalty,” said Dean. “Some will ask for a payment plan. If they miss one payment, whether its $35 or $100, there’s a civil assessment again of $325 dollars.”

Both Bui and Nguyen questioned the data in the staff’s report.

“The data we compare[d] doesn’t have a large sample and may not be appropriate for statistical analysis,” Bui said. “We only have two or three years [of data] before the red light cameras come up. The years we have afterward is a lot [sic]. So it is not easy to do an average statistical analysis.”

Invoking his undergraduate degree in mathematics, Bui called the staff report “misleading” and picked through collision data year-to-year.

“Some years it’s less, some years it’s more. To me it’s clear that the camera doesn’t really have any effect…because if it has an effect, it should be consistent year after year,” Bui said. “It says to me that the accidents are controlled by other factors, and for us to conclude that the camera is helping, this data doesn’t convince me of that.”

Nguyen argued the fines are a high price to pay for a program that doesn’t ensure safety.

“These cameras don’t make intersections safer. Distractions and DUIs are still going to happen,” Nguyen said. “The cost of time, money and stress [for residents], is it worth it?”

Beard said Bui and Nguyen were overcomplicating the issue.

“I think the statistics are there…it’s affected my behavior. I slow down, I drive cautiously in those areas,” Beard said. “This program encourages people to stop at red lights…It’s a matter of driving under the parameters of the law.”

Phan deferred to the opinion of Police Chief Todd Elgin, who said the camera program has helped free up police time and keep residents who run red lights accountable.

“The one thing that really tilts my decision is our police chief — you’re on the ground and fighting the battles, and the last thing I would do is pull a rug out from underneath you,” Phan said. “I wouldn’t second guess those in the trenches.”

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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