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Napa, Calif., Reconsiders Red Light Traffic Cameras

Amid calls to improve the city of Napa's traffic safety, the Napa City Council will explore whether the city should bring back highly controversial red-light camera traffic enforcement that's been gone since 2017.

(TNS) — Amid community calls to improve the city of Napa's traffic safety, the Napa City Council on Tuesday will explore whether the city should bring back once highly-controversial red-light camera traffic enforcement that's been gone from Napa's intersections since 2017.

A red-light system was previously approved by the City Council back in 2008, according to previous Register reporting, through a contract with the Australia-based Redflex Traffic Systems. Of the councilmembers, then-mayor Jill Techel cast the sole vote against the contract, and said the program would ticket too many motorists committing low-risk traffic violations.

But in 2017 — eight years after the cameras began appearing at local intersections — the City Council decided not to renew the Redflex contract, despite a recommendation to do so from the Napa Police Department. An initial supporter of the program, then-councilmember Peter Mott said he didn't think the benefit of the system outweighed the detriments.

One of those detriments was community consternation about nearly $500 fines that would be mailed to people's houses as a result of violations. Throughout the program's life-span, cameras existed at four intersections: Jefferson and First streets; the Highway 29 and 12/121 junction, Trancas Street and Big Ranch Road, and Soscol and Imola avenues.

"If someone is living paycheck to paycheck and gets a bill in the mail for $500, that's a huge penalty," Techel said at the time.

Redflex had also been ensnared in bribery scandals in Chicago and Columbus, Ohio by then, resulting in several prison sentences for both city and Redflex officials. The company eventually agreed to pay a $20 million settlement to Chicago in response to a lawsuit over admitted fraud.

Mayor Scott Sedgley was the only councilmember to support renewing the contract back in 2017. He argued at the time that the red-light system improved traffic safety.

"Repeat offenders are next to zero; it's a learned behavior," Sedgley said at the time. "That's the benefit of the program, that people are aware of the cameras and the cost of tickets. The fine does seem high, but that's the cost of breaking the law."

Sedgley said in an interview Friday that his mind hasn't changed since the 2017 vote. He said he always felt the red-light cameras did an effective job to reduce accidents at Napa's major intersections. Sedgley added that he still needs to examine what the plan for reestablishing the red-light cameras would be, but he's generally supportive of reinstating such a system.

"I received a ticket, one of those expensive red light tickets," Sedgley said. "And it changed my behavior. When I approach yellow lights now, I slow down. It was a positive change because it's an expensive ticket. You can avoid that expensive ticket by not running through yellow lights. It's pretty simple."

Other current councilmembers also said in interviews they support exploring the reintroduction of such a system.

Councilmember Bernie Narvaez — who called while driving, via a hands-free Bluetooth connection — said he saw someone drive through a red light in Napa just prior to the interview, and he sees that all the time. He said there have been concerns in the past about the revenue generation side of red-light cameras. But, he added, the fees can help the city cover expenses of the program and cover education on traffic safety as well.

As for the high price of the past program, Narvaez added that hopefully everyone will think twice about traffic decisions after receiving a $500 fine. He said that he hopes the program doesn't have revenue because that means people are following the law.

"It comes down to one thing and that's safety," Narvaez said. "Safety for pedestrians, for cyclists and for the rest of our community members. I'm not looking to seek and punish people; what I'm hoping to get out of this whole thing is for people to not run red lights."

Councilmember Liz Alessio said in an email that she supports a red-light camera system based on the information she currently has. She said Napa ranks very low on road safety — according to data from the California Office of Traffic Safety covering 2019, Napa County was the sixth worst of 105 comparable jurisdictions in total fatal and injury crashes, and second worst in a composite score that compares every type of crash.

Alessio added that Napa has a higher number of vehicles coming in and out of the city than ever before and keeping everyone safe is her priority.

Councilmember Mary Luros said she thinks she'll likely support a red-light camera system as well. She noted that the city's had to cut back on traffic enforcement because of the pandemic. Even though the Napa Police Department brought back its traffic unit in recent weeks, Luros said, the unit only consists of three people at the moment and the city hasn't been able to build it up to where it should be.

Sedgley added that drivers should be aware that the police department is already targeting certain dangerous intersections, identified as such through collision data.

"It would be wonderful if we had a traffic enforcement officer on every street on town, but that's not practical," Sedgley said. "I think we have to use technology to our advantage. If we can improve safety at these intersections and we can do it at no additional cost, that's the right thing to do."

© 2022 Napa Valley Register, Calif. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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