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Majority caught running a light wont get ticket

High burden of proof lessens cameras' impact at five intersections

A kink in the red-light camera system is preventing police from ticketing a majority of the motorists who run red lights at five intersections in the city where red-light enforcement cameras are installed.

As a result, fewer than half of the violators are actually ticketed.

In March, for instance, the Portland cameras caught 1,825 motorists violating the law, but officers were able to send tickets to only 806, or 44 percent.

That's because police in Oregon must establish a higher burden of proof than in other states to match the driver with the person caught on camera.

As a result, both Portland, seven months into the program, and the city of Beaverton, just over a year in, have not broken even.

Yet program administrators in both cities say they were never out to make a profit off the red-light cameras. They say the programs are going full steam ahead.

'It probably wasn't expected to generate revenue,' said Sarah Bott, a spokeswoman for Mayor Vera Katz. 'Lots of things we do don't make money for the city. But as a deterrence, it's an investment in the city that's important.'

The difficulty in citing violators has to do with a mandate by the Oregon Legislature requiring police to confirm that the gender of the registered owner of the vehicle matches that of the person photographed.

After a camera 'catches' a violator, an officer must examine each photo to determine whether it would hold up in court.

The license plate must be clearly visible, which isn't always the case. The correct registered owner must be found, which is difficult when a new car has not been registered. And the driver must be visible in the photograph, which is often a challenge when glaring sunlight or raindrops cloud the windshield.

Sgt. Rod Lucich, who runs the program, said the reasoning behind the high standard is that some legislators 'feel they want the driver held accountable and want it to go on driving records. Other states said we want to hit them in the pocketbook, and we don't care about their driving records.'

In other jurisdictions, police don't need to confirm the driver's identity; they only need to match the license plate to the registered owner of the vehicle and send the $175 ticket to that person's address. In Lakewood, Wash., for example, police cite 85 percent of the offenders.

'If we get past the issue of citing the driver, more violators will be held accountable,' Lucich said.

The Portland City Council unanimously approved the installation of up to eight traffic cameras in March 2001.

Five are currently in place: at East Burnside Street and Grand Avenue; Northeast 39th Avenue and Sandy Boulevard, both westbound and northbound; West Burnside Street and Southwest 19th Avenue; and Southeast Madison Street and Grand Avenue.

Two more are slated to be installed in the near future, at Southeast Grand Street and Broadway and at Northeast Grand and Multnomah Street.

Safety outweighs money

The lack of revenue, program administrators say, is outweighed by the improvements that the cameras are bringing in reducing the number of red-light violators.

Lucich said because the program is so new, he did not have any analysis of its success. But anecdotally, he said, violations are down because of public awareness.

'It's incredible, the amount of violations that have come down over that time since it was installed,' Lucich said. 'It just drops so dramatically. Once people knew it was there, they just mind their p's and q's.'

Part of the ticket revenue collected in Portland goes to Affiliated Computer Systems, a Dallas-based computer outsourcing firm that manages 870 red-light cameras in the United States. Affiliated bought out Lockheed Martin, the company the city contracted with to run the program.

Under the contract, Affiliated provides the city with cameras, develops film and mails citations. For these services, the city will pay $2,000 a month to rent the cameras and $14 to $27 for every paid citation, depending on volume. The more tickets that are paid, the less Affiliated makes per ticket.

'Red means stop'

The city expects to issue a little more than $4 million worth of citations the first year that all cameras are working. It must share most of that revenue with the state of Oregon and Multnomah County, however.

When red-light cameras began in Beaverton last year, the city launched a massive campaign that included signs, billboards, media ads and mailings that read: 'Red means stop in Beaverton.'

Since installing five cameras, Beaverton has issued 3,253 citations, a spokeswoman said. At $175 per ticket, that's $569,275 collected.

Yet it's still not bringing in a profit. 'We're close to paying for the infrastructure,' said Linda Adlard, chief of staff to Beaverton Mayor Rob Drake.

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