Merced County Times Newspaper
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Merced City Council OKs contract to install new red light cams

Stats target 16th & R intersection; 30-day grace period starts once they’re operational

 

Once again in recent weeks, without any fanfare, the Merced City Council approved a contract listed on its regular consent item agenda that will be significant, never seen before, and highly visible for thousands of local motorists on a daily basis.

Last week, the Times reported on a state-funded, third-party contract to create and put in place  several very large welcome signs to busy highway and state route entrances to town. On Monday night, city leaders unanimously gave the go-ahead for a private traffic safety company to install red light enforcement cameras above, at the least, one major traffic intersection that statistically has the most recorded daily instances of motorists driving completely through a red light. The cost of the service is an annual $126,000.

“There are too many fatal traffic accidents on our streets,” said Mayor Matthew Serratto. “It’s a huge safety issue … and hopefully we can start making progress to change the culture in this town.”

Once installed, the cameras will make Merced the first city in this county to implement the technology. Modesto has four cameras in operation, though they were temporarily suspended in the past due financial troubles of the private vendor. Fresno dumped their multiple red light camera enforcement system more than a decade ago because it wasn’t making financial sense, but after an uptick in deadly collisions last year, city leaders began talking about bringing the camera strategy back. There are several hundred cameras in operation in the Bay Area. The private company who won the Merced contract — Verra Mobility for Automated Photo Enforcement Technology — is considered a leader in the industry. They say their cameras can reduce traffic collisions caused by red light violations by 40 percent.

 

How it’s going to work

After a red light camera traffic violation occurs, a notice of violation is mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle with a link to an online video recording of the incident. The owner can contest the action in court, or pay the fine, which is typically around $400. Most of that goes to the state, but about $180 returns to the city coffers.

Officials say anything over two violations per day at their first intersection site, equipped with two cameras in operation for two separate directions, will generate more than enough income to pay for the service. Each camera will cost about $5,200 a month to operate.

Merced Police Chief Steven Stanfield says he wants to start with two cameras at the intersection of 16th and R streets in the downtown area due to statistics developed by his department and Verra Mobility.

“What I’m looking at is reducing traffic collisions at this intersection,” Chief Stanfield told the Times. “We look at statistics on what caused a crash. When we go out to investigate a crash, what was the primary collision factor? How many times was running a red light the primary collision factor? That’s why this intersection was picked. It’s No. 1, statistically, in the city.”

From the start, officials say they can predict about 7.8 red light violations per day through just one direction at 16th and R, or a possible total of 25 violations per day for the entire intersection, if all directions were taken into account.

Stanfield says he only wants to utilize two cameras at the intersection, and a decision on which direction the cameras will be pointed has yet to be made.

There’s some permitting and installation work to be done, but the chief expects the cameras at 16th and R to go active sometime in the fall. He will make the announcement on the Police Department and City of Merced social media pages. Signs will be posted a couple hundred feet from the cameras to warn drivers of the “photo controlled intersection.” And for the first 30 days, he said, the Police Department will only be sending warnings to those who run a red light at the site, along with a link to the video evidence.

“I’m not trying to be sneaky,” said Stanfield. “There will be a sign ahead of the intersection that drivers will clearly see. … My goal is that I don’t have to issue any red light tickets at this intersection. And I can reduce crashes. My heart tells me that if I can get people to stop at the red lights, I can reduce collisions in this city, drastically.”

Officials say vehicle owners will only be sent notices of violations if their car crosses the white limit line when the light is red. If a driver is already in the intersection when a yellow light turns red, then no violation will be recorded. All video evidence will be reviewed by a human officer (as opposed to artificial intelligence technology) at the Merced Police Department before a violation is determined.

That said, Chief Stanfield said the technology is highly sophisticated and can determine things like someone making an unsafe right turn on a red light. He said drivers can still come to a stop and make a right turn at an intersection when it’s safe and allowed, but drivers may want to think twice about doing an unsafe “California” or “Hollywood” stop while veering right.

The chief also informed the Times that more cameras at other Merced intersections are a definite possibility. In fact, he has a few sites already in mind; however, it all depends on how things go at 16th and R.

“I want more,” he said, “but I’m only going for two right now. I want to make sure they are working and providing a good service for the community, and if we start to see a reduction in collisions.”

Traffic safety has become a hot-button issue in the city of Merced, after a string of deadly traffic collisions over the past year, along with residents consistently approaching City Council members at community meetings with concerns about speeding, and even racing, on residential streets. At a “goals and priorities” session last year, City Councilwoman Sarah Boyle brought up the idea of red light cameras to combat what she described as a “growing city trend” of drivers racing through intersections without fear of facing consequences.

Surprisingly, there was only one public comment regarding this item when it came up at the meeting on Monday night.

“Traffic is a huge deal as we have heard at every Town Hall,” said Diana Odom Gunn, the president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association. “We are grossly understaffed [at the Police Department]. This is cheaper than a bunch of traffic cops, and it works as well. Unfortunately we need them.”

 

In other Council news ..
Long meeting, quick vote

While the red light discussion took no time at all, the issue of raising a Pride Flag over Bob Hart Square in downtown Merced took more than 1 hour and 40 minutes — pushing the meeting to well past midnight.

June is considered Pride Month, a celebration and commemoration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender pride. Pride Month began after the Stonewall riots, a series of gay liberation protests in 1969.

For the past couple of years, the city has allowed the flying of the “Rainbow Flag” on city property over Main Street, next to the Stars and Stripes, and the California State Flag.

The local Pride Month organizers apparently thought they could automatically raise it again last June 1, but they were told they have to apply for the pole use, beforehand, on an annual basis — just like any other group in town who wishes to fly a “commemorative flag” at the site on any given day, week or month. The City Council ultimately approves the “flag schedule,” and to be fair, it’s not clear the schedule was publicly discussed earlier this year as it has been done in the past.

So basically, the issue was put back on the Council’s agenda for Monday night. And yes, you guessed it, a lot of public comment started flowing in, with various points of view on the issue.

In total, there were 20 requests to speak in person at the meeting, and another 61 recorded voicemails sent to City Hall to be played at the meeting. After it was all said, and done, and the clock ticked past midnight, the City Council took about 3 minutes to make a decision.

It was unanimous: Fly the flag.

And P.S.: Others can fly theirs too in June or any other month. It’s first come, first served. Just make sure and fill out the form in time for the Council to give the OK.

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