Cities up and down the Peninsula and East Bay have increasingly turned to red-light cameras to nab lead-footed drivers intent on blasting through intersections. But it turns out the vast majority of tickets are going to motorists who simply roll through a right turn on red — getting cited for making what has become known as a "California stop."
In South San Francisco, 98 percent of the 672 red-light violations recorded in January and February at El Camino Real and Westborough Boulevard were for right turns. Other cities say four of five tickets are going to people turning right at some intersections.
With more cameras trained 24 hours a day on many intersections, never before has the California stop, also known as the Hollywood stop, been so risky. The cost of a violation can approach $550. Although many complain that's too much for a rolling right turn, cameras are growing in popularity among cash-strapped cities lacking resources to post police officers at busy corners.
Cameras will come to Santa Clara County later this year, when San Jose tests them at three intersections. Palo Alto is also considering them.
"Can those cameras determine if a California stop takes place?" asked Jay Smith, of Redwood City, who hasn't had a moving violation since college but recently saw the camera flash as he slowly turned right from Veterans Boulevard onto Whipple Avenue without coming to a full stop. "While it's technically illegal, I do
Can they catch those making a California stop? The answer: yes. Drivers are frequently stunned and incensed when tickets show up in the mail, often complete with links to video evidence on the Web. Many cameras are set to catch scofflaws going at 10 mph to 15 mph as they turn.
Cameras were introduced with the promise of improving public safety. A state report eight years ago said they were effective in reducing deaths and injuries from "T-bone" crashes, where a red-light runner slams into the side of a car crossing on a green light.
There were 762 people killed and an estimated 137,000 injured in crashes involving red-light running in 2008 nationwide, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. One in 10 involved drivers making a right without stopping.
Some people, including pedestrians and cyclists, say they fear for their safety because so many drivers fail to stop before turning.
"It's very dangerous, and they need to get tickets," said Dale Seavey, of Sunol, who is tired of dodging red-light runners at Tasman Drive and Cisco Way in San Jose. "I've seen numerous near-misses."
But Jim Thomas of the National Motorists Association disagrees. "There is comparatively little danger involved in the so-called California stop," he said. "In a perfect world, common sense would prevail and the red light would be a yield for right turns. At the least, cameras should not issue citations for this relatively safe maneuver."
One motorist in Millbrae saw the camera go off as he waited to turn with his front tires in the crosswalk. That can be a red-light violation.
"It irked me that I had made a complete stop and was still flashed, presumably because my front tires were just inside the crosswalk," said this driver, who asked to remain anonymous and who hasn't received a ticket in the mail — yet. "Red-light cameras on right turns are a cash cow for city coffers. Most drivers roll slightly past the crosswalk line when they stop before making a right turn."
In San Francisco, a driver making a right on red at low speeds is unlikely to get ticketed, as cameras focus on those blowing a red going straight.
Camera use has endured several snafus. The South San Francisco City Council never held a public meeting on the issue, as required, and will have to reimburse ticketed drivers more than $1 million. And San Carlos threw out 412 tickets after a driver-led protest revealed that its yellow lights were shorter than required.
The furor has gotten the attention of Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, who has asked the Legislative Analyst's Office to review the camera program. He wonders whether fines should be lowered to about $200, which is the cost for failing to halt at a stop sign.
"I'm not against using cameras," Hill said, "but $600 seems like an awful lot of money for what people consider to be a minor violation."
Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.