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How Costa Mesa uses traffic accidents that dont exist to hand out tickets that do

Photo by Will SwaimOne recent Tuesday night, while most of Costa Mesa slept, the City Council made a move to protect its citizens from a danger that does not exist.

On Sept. 17, the council voted 5-0 to install video cameras at major intersections. Council members made their decision following a police report that seemed to show that the city's intersections are increasingly dangerous.

Whether that report approaches anything like "accurate" is debatable to everyone but city officials, apparently. Police Lieutenant Karl Schuler drafted it with help from Nestor Inc., a company that manufactures video monitors. And the report's conclusions seem odd—not because they show that the city's intersections are automotive abattoirs, but because they suggest those intersections might be among the safest places in the city.

Based on a thorough study of the city's 11 most "dangerous" intersections from January 1999 through August 2001, the report shows the number of deaths from collision totaled . . . zero.

Zero.

The number of serious injuries at these same intersections was only slightly higher: in two years and eight months, just three.

Three, of course, is too much. But zero is pretty good.

Emphasizing terror rather than safety, the report does not show how many cars made it through these signalized death traps without injury to limb or life. So we conducted our own study: we sat at a signal and counted the number of cars passing through the intersection in each direction per hour (125) and came up with a conservative figure of 12,000 cars per intersection per day. Multiplied by those 11 intersections, that's 132,000 cars per day. Multiply this by 365 days in a year, and we get 48.1 million going through these intersections every year. Multiplying this by the two years and eight months that this study sampled, we arrive at 112 million autos passing through these 11 intersections during the study period.

Now move back to the report in which Schuler offers this fact: 99 percent of all accidents involved just two cars. We can see that in the two years and eight months, only six cars out of 112 million were involved in accidents leading to serious injury. The odds against being injured are 12 times higher then getting five out of five numbers on the California lottery.

This ought to be good news indeed, and you might expect the police and city officials to take credit for such a sterling record. But no. Nestor Inc. and the Costa Mesa City Council are attempting to convince us that video cameras will provide us with fewer accidents and safer streets. Based on their own numbers, it's hard to see how.

Costa Mesa falls into a long line of SoCal cities (San Diego, Irvine, Oxnard, LA, Garden Grove, Beverly Hills, Long Beach) that have handed over their streets to private or public surveillance agencies. And though Nestor Inc. has reached agreement to install its snoop system elsewhere, the city report notes that Nestor has no operational red-light video systems running anywhere. There is no track record, in other words, no before-and-after data, no cause-and-effect, no experience with legal challenges—nothing solid.

On one point, though, we have very solid data: Nestor Inc. will install Costa Mesa's cameras for free—in exchange for $97.56 per citation written, and the city will receive $43.36. In other words, with this vote, the city has reduced its public-safety responsibility to a matter of revenue generation.

 
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