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[whitespace] City says 'smile' to stoplight runners

Cupertino--Scofflaws who try to beat the red at some Cupertino stoplights next fall may be red-faced, after the city debuts its new Red Light Running Photo Enforcement Systems Program.

City Council members on April 17, approved a five-year agreement with a contractor, Lockheed-Martin IMS. The company will pay the city $150,000 per year for the contract, in exchange for keeping the revenue from traffic fines. Part of the company's payment to the city will be used to fund a new full-time traffic enforcement Sheriff's deputy, who will verify tickets and do community outreach about the new system.

According to city Traffic Engineer Ray Chong, red light running is the second most common cause of accidents in the city. From 1997 to 1999, there were 336 collisions reported in the city, and 201 related injuries.

Chong says other cities have been successful with the photo enforcement systems to cut accident rates. "The system has been proven to reduce these type of collisions and violations by 42 percent, especially in San Francisco and in Oxnard down south."

The system works by snapping a photo of a car's license plate and, hopefully, the driver's face, which is necessary for the citation to be valid. If the driver is not the registered owner of the car, the ticket can be issued to whomever was driving the car at the time.

Photos are snapped on a special roll of 35 mm film that can take up to 800 exposures. The negatives are then sent to a special processing facility in San Diego, then returned to the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department.

The minimum fine for violators caught by the photo system is $281, the same for any red light violation. Lockheed expects to keep about $111 of each collected fine. The bulk of the money goes to ,the county court system and to the state.

City Manager Don Brown said many of the cost-benefits for the project aren't the kind that would show up on the books.

"[People] are paying a lot of money to fix their cars or fix their lives because of these accidents," he said. "Every one of those accidents requires a sheriff's response, and that's our traffic enforcement guys, who would otherwise be doing something else.

"So, if you reduce the number of accidents by 42 percent, that means you have that much more patrol going on somewhere else, that much less damage to vehicles and fewer injuries. So it's a significant gain to us overall."

The system places two enforcement cameras at seven intersections in the city: Two at N. De Anza Boulevard and Interstate 280, two at Wolfe Road at I-280, two on Stevens Creek Boulevard at Highway 85 and one at De Anza Boulevard and Stevens Creek Boulevard.

Council members asked that the location of the cameras be reviewed by the Public Safety Commission before the seven intersections are officially finalized.

"All the others look like on-ramps and off-ramps for the freeway and these don't really get at the traffic that's crossing our community in other places," Mayor John Statton said. "I love the idea of ticketing people that are coming in and out of the community, but I don't think it solves the problem we've got along Stevens Creek and Homestead and De Anza."

Lockheed Martin Project Manager John Flynn said a statistical rate of red-light runners was the deciding factor in the choice of the seven intersections.

Council also asked to see a plan for the public education campaign that will accompany the kick-off of the photo system. When the photo enforcement system becomes operational, it will include a toll-free number for people who have questions about their citations. Flynn, who said his company is the largest supplier of photo enforcement systems, will appoint a full-time company employee to handle public awareness. The liaison will meet monthly with the city Public Works Department and Sheriff's Department.

In an additional effort to target stoplight offenders, county and local law enforcement on March 27, kicked-off a five month campaign targeting what they determined are the five most dangerous intersections in the county, including De Anza Boulevard at Homestead Road. Police are aided in their efforts by "rat boxes".

The boxes, mounted on the back of traffic lights, illuminate when the signal turns red. This allows police away from the intersection to know when the light has changed and determine if drivers have disregarded the signal.

Flynn said Lockheed's photo systems capture about 20 violations per camera per day on film. Of those, about 40 percent result in citations, and of those, about 50 percent of the cases lead to motorists paying fines.

The city selected Lockheed's bid for the system in November from a group of four bidders. Council requested a report on how well the program is working after three months of operation. The city will also have the option of expanding the program in the future if it decides to do so.
Jeff Kearns

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Web extra to the April 27-May 3, 2000 issue of Metro.

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